Innovation is one of those grand abstractions that everyone favors in general. But because perspectives differ, identifying specific innovations can be a slippery exercise. To design engineers, innovation is associated with the proverbial lightbulb going off and real patents being filed. A technician’s role in the innovation cycle often is more on the practical side of confirming that something new actually works. To business strategists and consumers, innovation means other things. Further complicating the picture is that each of these groups is itself diverse, and that innovation can be threatening, if not downright hostile, to all concerned. None of these variables diminishes the importance of the topic, which we highlighted a year ago in a story on the one-way CableReady digital TV set and the industry team, led by Comcast executive Mark Coblitz, that negotiated on its behalf. This year, however, we cast a wider net, with the goal of scanning categories of technology that have served as influential agents of change over the past year and promise to continue generating innovation going forward. Herewith, our Innovations 2005 picks: NGNA: Innovation by committee Not a technology per se, the Next Generation Network Architecture (NGNA) initiative is an umbrella under which much of the industry’s innovative thinking is taking place. Since the network itself is the subject of this effort, the attendant technologies under consideration are manifold, ranging from advanced compression to distributed edge quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) technology architectures. It will take time before anyone can write the full story on NGNA. Vendors, however, already are positioning themselves accordingly. For instance, Casa Systems dubbed its digital cable modem termination system (CMTS) as "NGNA-ready" at last year’s Cable-Tec Expo. Expect more NGNA entrants in 2005 and beyond. SIP: Disruption, plus opportunity The signaling formula known as session initiation protocol (SIP) is nothing new. Originally developed within the Internet Engineering Task Force multiparty multimedia session control (MMUSIC) working group in the 1990s, this application layer, smart-endpoints approach to network communications was handed off to the IETF SIP working group in 1999. What did emerge over 2004 was its use in a textbook case of disruptive innovation. Voice over broadband service provider Vonage drove much of this disruption, with AT&T launching its sound-alike and self-cannibalizing Internet voice service CallVantage, and cable operators scrambling to reconsider the relation between SIP and PacketCable. A eureka moment occurred when the industry realized that by way of a SIP proxy, PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM) could add quality of service (QoS) to SIP-based bandwidth hitchhiking voice applications, as demoed at last year’s shows by the likes of PCMM policy server vendor Camiant. SIP’s potential to overtake network-based call signaling (NCS) as the de facto signaling protocol for voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is significant enough, but SIP also interfaces with presence detection applications, PCMM-based video conferencing, converged next-generation cell phone networks and even video on demand (VOD) session establishment. What this adds up to is "the emergence of SIP as a common control plane for multiple services and as an enabler for converged services," says Gerry White, Motorola senior director of advanced technology. This could be another critical item on the 2005 agenda: narrowing the gap between wireless and wireline services. "It can link MSOs with cellular operators to provide continuity of voice calls from mobile to landline or offer delivery of streaming video or audio to traditional cable and mobile devices," he adds. FPGA: Flexibility Much innovation in this industry occurs beneath the hood, at the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) level. In the case of field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), the industry has found high-powered catalysts of change. "Cable equipment vendors can design ‘hardware’ in FPGAs in record short time," says Mark Bugajski, VP for advanced technology at Arris. "The painful respin of PCBs [printed circuit boards], track cuts and mod jumper soldering became things of the past." Briefings from startups such as video processing and bandwidth management provider RGB Networks and IP service control platform provider P-Cube (purchased by Cisco Systems) include telling references to FPGA technology. One upshot is a further blurring of the distinction between hardware and the ever more important category of software. (See "Code-slinging" below.) RF ASICS: Integration To some extent, FPGAs are displacing custom application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) in the design of complex circuitries. Yet ASICs have some life in them, as witness developments in the RF space. A brief update to last year’s story on the CableReady digital TV set bears relevance. The one-way consumer devices themselves are taking off-albeit from low absolute levels-with the number of deployed CableCards having grown nearly tenfold, from 700 to 5,000, in the August to November 2004 time frame. Inside such devices are increasingly integrated electronics. And the game is to push that envelope further. "Next generation RF silicon begins to combine A/D [analog/digital] converters and even DSP [digital signal processing] processors," Bugaski says. "I am confident that soon we will be able to see truly single chip, video-plus-data CPE [customer premises equipment] that includes front and back RF processing." Moreover, this kind of RF silicon technology already has enabled the arrival of advanced PHY (physical layer)-equipped digital burst receivers in the CMTS, whose performances have changed for the better as a result, says Cisco’s Ron Hranac. DSP: Intelligence DSP has been around for more than two decades. What’s new is that this powerful, broad-based technology has reached a tipping point, with a role in electrical engineering now analogous to that of "a previous technological revolution: electronics," writes Steven Smith in Digital Signal Processing (Elsevier Science: 2003). As an indication of DSP’s breakthrough status, consider the "DSP Developers’ Village" that Texas Instruments showcases on its Web site. Designers can evaluate DSP platforms, development tools and software, or register for TI’s three-day developer conference, which once had been a purely academic event. The significance of this kind of creative energy is that improvements in DSP-based technology are spilling over into cable systems, from high definition (HD)-capable set-tops to handheld tools that enable triple-play troubleshooting to CMTS gear that cleans up and expands data networks. Since 2001, for instance, chipsets from TI and Broadcom have been available to CMTS vendors that enable the advanced PHY features of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) 2.0 specification, such as ingress cancellation, 24-tap adaptive equalization, improved forward error correction (FEC) and programmable byte interleaving. While the future of synchronous code division multiple access (S-CDMA), which was Terayon’s contribution to the DOCSIS 2.0 effort, remains in some doubt, CMTS equipment powered by advanced PHY chips at last has real fans. "What we’re hearing is, ‘We’re plugging this in because it works,’" says Hranac. Motorola’s Gerry White agrees that advanced PHY’s day has arrived. "This will be key to provide higher bandwidths and better ingress mitigation for data services on HFC [hybrid fiber/coax] plants going forward," he says. "It should enable deployment of 16-QAM DOCSIS upstreams this year, with the potential to enable even higher modulation going forward." So two cheers for DSP. Just realize that like many powerfully innovative technologies, it is double-edged sword. Going forward, it also will drive both faster digital subscriber line (DSL) links and competitive consumer products. Swedish-based IP set-top manufacturer Kreatel, for instance, is using TI’s TMS320DM64x digital media processors in its next-gen products. Supporting a dizzying array of audio and video coding algorithms and data processing capabilities, the processor is based on TI’s C64x DSP core, which is itself part of a generation whose reduced power requirements and enhanced battery life helped extend the reach of DSP technologies. ROADMs: Optical efficiency Momentum is gathering around the category of smart optical line technology, including reconfigurable optical add/drop multiplexers (ROADMs). While some skepticism is warranted given the hype that surrounded this category five years ago, times-and business models-have changed. "ROADMs are very important to us now as we mature and deploy more services over the same paths," says Tom Gorman, vice president of engineering for Charter Communications’ Midwest division. "It’s the right technology for our converged network vision." The growth of dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) systems in part explains the revival of the reconfigurable approach: More channels mean more lasers, which mean more spares, greater inventory costs and a corresponding interest in a single (i.e., tunable) laser that works across all channels. There are other inefficiencies of the fixed wavelength status quo. As noted by Scientific-Atlanta Optical Product Manager Jason Shreeram in a paper delivered at the 2004 Conference on Emerging Technologies, these include time-consuming adjustments for new services or capacity, inflexible bandwidth allocation and costly network redundancies. Also fueling this shift have been attractive price points on tunable lasers and filters, along with the prospect of a common optical backplane that employs the generalized multi-protocol label switching (GMPLS) protocol, says Gaylord Hart, MSO business and architecture development director with Mahi Networks, which acquired ROADM assets from bankrupt Photuris in June 2004. Routers and more DWDM The cost-saving intelligence in the new smart optical network consists partly of automatic equalizing of wavelengths and amplifiers, as well as gain balancing. But network intelligence also is associated with the type of traffic carried and is further correlated with cost, another key point in Shreeram’s ET paper last year. To optimize that cost, more than GMPLS on the optical plane, you need something like MPLS itself to actually look inside the optical connections. And so the blurring of the line between routing and transport-another innovative development over the past year. For instance, the rise of the so-called Xenpak pluggable optics form factor enables the linkage of 10 Gig DWDM directly into routers. Add Resilient Packet Ring (RPR) Layer 2 media access control (MAC) with east/west interfaces (as some operators have done already without fanfare), and you have the building blocks for a pretty smart network, with the potential for relatively efficient tradeoffs between physical, data and network layers of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) stack. Code-slinging Technologists playing in the cable space are writing more code than ever before. "Software is probably where the biggest impact of innovation will occur," says John Hildebrand, Cox Communications vice president of multimedia technology. "There is so much going on in this area that will change the future of cable television." As for video services, the industry’s Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP) effort illustrates how painstaking such projects can be, even when leveraging an existing template such as Digital Video Broadcasting-Multimedia Home Platform (DVB-MHP) and robust application programming interface (API) libraries as provided for by the Java Virtual Machine. Yet 2004 saw the arrival of content owners to the OCAP party, and an interoperability event that included 24 OCAP implementers and application development companies. At the same time, the Cox Communications-led effort to create an "On Ramp" for current and legacy two-way digital set-top boxes advanced through the Java Community Process, and Comcast and Time Warner launched a joint venture aimed at accelerating OCAP implementation. Systems for managing on-demand content, such as N2 Broadband’s Com mon Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA)-based digital content platform, helped disaggregate closed systems, thereby contributing to an ongoing effort among operators to create optimized session resource managers, smart algorithms governing asset distribution, and greater efficiency in streaming and storage. Software-based innovation has hit operations support systems (OSSs) hard, too. A case in point is the development platform from Auspice Corp. that enables cable technicians to build automated, cross-platform sequences themselves, using a software language that consists of scalable logical bundles and libraries of interfaces that talk to native protocols and other applications. Protocols and customers Within many of these software constructs lies another family of code that appears to be gaining steam. "The more interesting development in software platforms may turn out to be the use of XML [extensible markup language]-based protocols," says Motorola’s White. Originally created for enhancing Web documents, XML now plays a role in the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) standard as well as in instant messaging (IM) and presence applications, such as eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), developed within the open-source Jabber community. With IM and presence software, we’re back in the realms of so-called seamless mobility alluded to above under the SIP heading. Such overlaps are not surprising. The threads of innovation running through this industry are discrete yet interlocking. Begin tugging on one, and you’ll start unraveling another. Ultimately, however, they need to combine on behalf of the customer. In technical circles, motions to innovate tend to pass without objection. ("All opposed…?") But in the end, it’s the vote in the marketplace that really counts. SCTE Vice President of Technical Programs Marv Nelson ably underscored that point in the December 2004 "SCTE Message," in the context of this month’s ET 2005. As cable enters another year with forces of innovation working both for and against it, closing the loop between design engineers, business managers and consumers is critical to ensuring that technological change continues to be harnassed for the sake of efficiency and desirable new services. Jonathan Tombes is Communications Technology’s executive editor. Email him at email@example.com.