Howard Watson is chief technology officer of ntl Telewest in the United Kingdom.
We understand ntl is going to be one of the first cable operators globally to move to a “quad play” model. What are the main technical challenges in doing this? How difficult will it be to link all these services together from a technical point of view?
Quad play is rolling out in many phases: The first phase offerings are straightforward service bundles, and these have few technical dependencies and are already on offer in the marketplace. Subsequent phases will see increasing levels of integration that are focused on improving our customers’ communication and entertainment experiences. Too often, convergence discussions are led by a discussion of technology or architecture, such as IMS, rather than by what would really benefit customers. So the key challenge is to first understand what would transform our customers’ experience and to then remove the technical obstacles to making that happen. For example, how can we create an environment where our customers have access to their content across all three of our screens: TV, PC and mobile? The technical challenge here is to bring what is today a separate set of content delivery platforms into a single, simple integrated experience under a common subscription.
ntl is/has been investing in improving the efficiency of its billing systems. Could you tell us about your plans here? How do you think this investment will lead to an improved efficiency in the business?
One of the primary synergy drivers post-merger for ntl Telewest is a single billing platform across the merged organization. We are in the process of migrating all legacy ntl billing platforms to the Telewest platform, which is the Convergys ICOMS product. We expect significant efficiencies from having a single system and a single set of processes that will allow us to optimize our internal support functions, our customer facing staff and provide a more consistent level of service to all of our customers.
In the last year, we have seen ntl launch a progressive VOD service. Technically, what are the main challenges in taking this area to the next level? Are you geared up to launch more SVOD services and the like?
Our on-demand service launched with a product proposition of 80 hours a week of Catch Up TV from the BBC and Flextech, a library of 500 new and archive films, adult and music content, and a library SVOD television proposition of approximately 200 hours. Since launch we have added high definition content to that mix.
Without doubt, the catch-up proposition has caught the imagination of broadcasters and the public alike, and we expect the amount of hours of this content to increase significantly over the coming months. We have recently signed a three-year agreement with Ch. 4, providing a significant amount of catch-up and library programs.
Technically, our intention is to drive buy rates through tying on-demand content more tightly to the linear experience. Expect to see “red button” prompts on broadcast TV inviting you to watch the rest of the series of a program via on-demand and also VOD channels within the broadcast EPG.
Our platform is designed for easy scalability, and, as such, adding further capacity where necessary causes no problems.
What would you say are your main technical achievements over the last 12 months? If we have this conversation at the same time next year, what major technology achievement would you like to have executed?
In bringing the two companies together (ntl and Telewest), we have faced a number of technical challenges—unifying our networks, IT systems, service platforms and product offerings, and this work will continue over the next 12 months.
In addition to this, we have enhanced our time-shift TV (content any time) capability through the development of our VOD, catch-up TV and personal video recorder (PVR) services, which have been further enhanced by HDTV broadcast. As we move into 2007, we will not only continue to enhance these services, but also start to develop place-shift capability, enabling access to content any time, any place and across multiple devices, and in addition mobile capability.
DOCSIS 3.0 will enable us to unleash the network advantage of cable. This year, we have successfully run small technical and network trials with early release equipment. Next year will be about starting to extend this capability across the network and developing customer offerings, which will truly be able to maximize the benefit of the cable network. From an IT perspective, the biggest challenge over the last 12 months has been the creation of the architectural blueprint for the newly merged company and also the mobilization of the transformation team to make it a reality. That team is now more than 300 people strong, and the program will complete in the third quarter of 2007. Looking forward a year, obviously I would like to look back on the successful implementation of the blueprint; however, I also expect to have implemented a service-oriented architecture to help deliver even more efficiencies into the organization.
With telcos moving en masse into IPTV, and therefore triple play, what can cable players do to leverage the strengths of their networks? Technically, how can you stay ahead of a British Telecom?
This is a contest that we are looking forward to. Video is a bandwidth-hungry and demanding application. Just imagine a home where someone is watching an HD program, someone else is watching an SD VOD program, and in addition someone else is busy recording the SD football on his or her PVR. That is a lot of bandwidth. Let’s assume it could all be squeezed into 12 to 14 Mbps. Only a minority of BT’s customers will live close enough to their BT exchange to have that kind of performance on their DSL connection (and indeed, they will not be able to have over 8 Mbps until BT rolls out ADSL2+). Furthermore, that assumes that no one will want to use the Internet at the same time—with all that high priority video traffic on a DSL connection, the Internet service will slow to a crawl. Our network advantage is the huge capacity of our coax access network. With separate capacity allocated for DTV, VOD, HDTV and broadband, customers can have it all.
What impact will the new DOCSIS 3.0 specifications have on your business? Could you tell us about the advanced digital services you are looking to deploy over the next two years?
DOCSIS 3.0 is the next generation broadband technology for cable. We have successfully completed technology trials of a pre-standard version of the same technology in Ashford in Kent earlier this year. The trial went well, and we were able to demonstrate broadband services into the home with burst speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Furthermore, because the cable access network is amplified, these speeds are distance independent, unlike DSL. The interesting question is what you, the consumer, would do with such a technology.
In our trials, we discovered that when you go to speeds like this, quite often the limiting factor is no longer the access network, but your home network or your PC. Clearly there are many impressive things you can do with such a powerful connection. For example, two areas we looked at were the delivery of real-time multicast HDTV channels and incredibly fast video downloads. Entire films delivered in a matter of minutes. It is easy, though, to get fixated on speeds, and the speed of this technology is extremely fast, but perhaps a better way to look at DOCSIS 3.0 is as a technology that simply means the access is no longer a bottleneck to what you want to do. It is going to be an interesting area for us to actively explore further.
What is your organization’s current balance among video, voice and data technologies? How do you see that portfolio shifting or evolving over the next three to five years?
Clearly, in the past, technologies sat in their own silos. Video sat in a CATV silo, voice in a TDM silo and data in an IP silo. Today, it is a very different world; the focus is no longer on vertical silos, but on horizontal platforms. For example, we have a range of access technologies, wired and wireless, so our customers can reach all of our services both in the home and on the move. Above that, we have a range of networks that we use to connect customers to each other and to all of the services they want. Some of the networks we own; others we lease from operators such as T-Mobile and BT wholesale. Over and above the networks, we have our own entertainment and communication applications. Currently, many of them are separate, but in the future they will be increasingly integrated. Across this new environment, voice, video and data all remain important. Voice on both fixed and mobile networks is still a key element of our revenues. Content in general and video in particular is an area of tremendous consumer interest and innovation. Indeed, in this new environment, all services are becoming simply another form of data.