Each MSO has its own plans for 2004. Comcast—and now Adelphia—is focussed on completing upgrades. But some planning cuts across MSO lines.
Given our read of the industry, operators also are—and should be—preparing for OpenCable compliance, assessing transport options and figuring out how to differentiate their high-speed data service.
This suggests that operators will be aiming, at once, to make their systems more standards-friendly, efficient and subject to advantageous controls. It’s a situation that speaks to the complexity of today’s cable networks.
Plugging and playing
Let’s make two assumptions. First, the Federal Communications Commission finally approves the “plug-and-play” agreement on one-way, cable-ready, high-definition TV (HDTV) sets reached between the consumer electronics and cable industries last December. Second, the two industries reach a successful follow-up understanding on two-way services.
Several consequences follow as a result. On the first point, operators will need both point of deployment (POD) modules for the HDTV “host” devices that appear on their network and upgrades to headend equipment that communicates to those PODs. Further down the road, they will need to be able to download OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) software to a similar set of devices that are two-way capable.
Notwithstanding the FCC’s dithering, technical implementation of the December 2002 agreement is well underway. Scientific-Atlanta announced CableLabs’ qualification of its POD 1.1 module in early June. At the National Show, Motorola was demonstrating POD functionality with HDTV sets from LG Electronics.
This movement suggests that deployment of POD-enabled, removable security in host devices will easily meet the plug-and-play agreement’s July 2004 deadline. “We’re really shooting for third quarter, having host availability,” Lou Mastrocola, director of product management for Motorola Broadband’s digital media systems, says.
What’s involved at a Motorola headend is tweaking software on the digital addressable controller (DAC). “Right now, it’s a minor upgrade to any release that they have in the field,” Mastrocola says.
And the word in one of Motorola’s “fields” echoes that line on plug-and-play. “It’s more or less upgrading your digital controller and support of the POD,” says Steve Fox, vice president of digital services and IT at CableOne. “We’ve placed all of our orders, and that’s just about all we can do; so when they’re available, we’ll go.”
The industry is aiming to leverage its work on the POD module for OCAP support. “The consistent message we get back from MSOs is, ‘Look, I’ve got to have a download mechanism for these host devices. Let’s just make it a consistent mechanism,’” Mastrocola says.
That is technically feasible. The “most fundamental” part of implementing OCAP is the OpenCable software download, Tony Wasilewski, Scientific-Atlanta chief scientist, says. “That’s not, strictly speaking, a part of OCAP.”
In other words, by supporting the POD, operators get a standard that works for OCAP, as well. “It involves code version tables, so that different devices can understand which software they should download,” Wasilewski explains.
Wasilewski notes that S-A already downloads software over its system using a DVB data carousel foundation, which is based on the Digital Storage Media Command and Control (DSMCC) standard that became part of the OCAP standard.
But even with that start, he anticipates six months of testing to make S-A headends OCAP-ready. The work includes adding OpenCable security and another DVB standard called the object carousel.
Motorola has a similar migration path for OCAP. “With the current releases of DAC, we can support an external carousel server and do in-band OCAP download,” Mastrocola says. “Moving forward, we’ll be doing work on the DAC/RADD (remote addressable DANIS/DLS) combination to support carouseling internally with our control system.”
Mastrocola says another software upgrade, downloadable to RADD, should bring the “very similar” Motorola and OCAP systems in line.
While the plug-and-play HDTV set agreement is driving much of this OpenCable activity, OCAP on the set-top front is advancing, as well.
In June, Time Warner Cable announced that it would finish development of its OCAP implementation for system integration by early next year with S-A and Pioneer, and expected those vendors to submit their set-tops to CableLabs for qualification.
So while OCAP picks up steam, operators have a chance to consider what packages of applications make the most sense. “We’re in an environment now where the MSO is going to have to take a lot of responsibility on doing configuration management to the multiple hosts that you have on a system,” Mastrocola says.
Another issue, how best to load files onto the carousel, will become critical when operators begin meeting “bound” applications, such as sports trivia embedded within an ESPN feed, Wasilewski says. Operators who neglect that piece could miss opportunities for advertising.
With too many technologies chasing too few dollars in the network infrastructure budget, some of the buzz around this category is sheer noise. But engineers are working on two real problems: VOD transport and traffic convergence.
Given the rapid acceleration of on-demand content this year, operators have put a premium on transporting it more efficiently. And newcomers to the industry have stepped up to this plate.
It’s tricky to extrapolate any industry trends from Cablevision, whose centralized model is only one of its peculiarities. But the maverick MSO opted for Internet Photonics’ transport solution to accelerate its VOD rollout. Moreover, at industry events one finds engineers from other MSOs who know and like this firm’s 10 gigabit Ethernet technology (GigE).
As a convergence play, resilient packet ring (RPR) has won the praise of Comcast CTO Dave Fellows for its potential to merge VOD and data traffic. (See Communications Technology, April 2003, p. 36). The emerging standard’s advocates in the cable industry, such as Scientific-Atlanta, are upbeat, but know the lay of the land.
“The guys that are in the former Broadband properties are very SONET-oriented,” says Jason Shreeram, Scientific-Atlanta product manager. “The Comcast (headquarter) guys are not tied to one architecture.”
Infrastructure ultimately becomes a system-level issue. “I think in the big markets, there’s already been a lot of planning for rings,” Shreeram says. “They’re going to be challenged in the mid-sized markets.”
Canvassing the local terrain reveals interesting truths. Cable has some “very ugly fiber plants” and systems with topologies that “look like a Led Zeppelin cover,” Dave Pecorella, director of product marketing at Artel, says.
Artel accordingly designed its GigE over dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) for flexible adoption. The company says a 3 Gig approach avoids the expensive step-functions of 10 Gig solutions and the scaling difficulties that afflict 1 to 2 Gig legacy technologies.
And Artel is targeting one objective: on-demand traffic. “RPR is a great technology, but it wasn’t developed to solve the VOD problem,” Pecorella says. “VOD traffic is more than everything combined.”
So the technology depends on your purpose. “Ten Gig makes a lot more sense if you converge those two, data and VOD, in the same fiber,” Pragash Pillai, Charter’s director of digital engineering, says.
Meanwhile, Charter is using Motorola gigabit transport simplex (GTS-2) and DWDM technology to manage its on-demand traffic at the hub level. “Two Gig was our sweet spot,” Pillai says.
Developments in on-demand server architecture, such as collaboration between MidStream and nCUBE, may undercut the case for 10 Gig transport. “Eventually, we’ll have a server at the edge,” Pillai says.
Beyond what Pillai calls “transponder solutions” at the edge is the larger question of “Fujitsu, Nortel and other carrier-class boxes.”
Here incumbent Motorola leads with its synchronous optical network (SONET) edge. “We start with a platform everyone has and is comfortable with,” says Rob Howald, director of systems engineering at Motorola’s network infrastructure solutions division. “Then we move out from there.
“Why that makes sense more now than ever is that so many of the business and technologies are converging,” Howald adds. Motorola’s Multiservice Broadband Transport (MBT) will support RPR, but the incomplete status of that new standard and existence of pre-standard Dynamic Packet Transport (DPT) from Cisco has made for “muddied waters.”
Like Cisco’s Cerent line, which Insight employed in its post Excite@Home data network build, and the Atoga technology that Arris acquired, the MBT does Ethernet over SONET, as well.
For its part, Atoga pitches an efficient match-up between SONET’s 155 Mbps increments and Ethernet’s 10, 100 and 1,000 (gigabit) rates. “We’re going to take packets from any Ethernet port, and pour it into the 155, till the 155 is full,” PG Menon, vice president of product marketing for Arris’ Atoga Metro Solutions, says.
Menon also tilts hard against RPR. “Even though it’s a ring architecture, it’s actually a daisy-chained transmission process.” Want to get from one node to another? “One-by-one, you have to hop around the ring,” he says.
“The benefit of SONET in a ring architecture is that it is direct,” he continues. “While the physical infrastructure is a ring, logically you can directly set up a connection between A and Z.”
Two of the seven technical sessions at the National Show in June concerned managing and tiering data services. That’s strong confirmation of the relevance of this topic.
On one of those panels, John Pickens, a technical advisor to Allot Communications, characterized the need to manage data traffic rates and assure the equitable consumption of network resources as “perhaps the penultimate requirement and opportunity for HFC cable networks.”
Pickens’ storied technology career includes tenure as CTO of Com21, the manufacturer of ATM-based cable modems. Among the earliest, and still one of the only, MSOs to have exploited differentiated services is Alaska’s GCI, which deployed high-speed data service on Com21’s proprietary platform.
“ATM-based products had all sorts of features for voice capability and quality assurance,” Dan Pike, CTO of GCI, says. “The guys that bought them tended to make use of those features.”
Charter has been another early adopter in the tiering arena, with three separate offerings. Relatively late to deploy high-speed data, CableOne launched in a tiered model, with two price-points at two different levels of throughput.
Fox says CableOne set the DOCSIS 1.0 throughput caps from the get-go. “We never went out there with the all-you-can-eat, three megabit download speed.”
Between the early and late adopters, however, is the majority of MSOs that launched high-speed data in the days of faster-is-better and before peer-to-peer apps upset the service’s business model.
Whether you adopt simple limits or caps, exploit DOCSIS 1.1 functionality or go with something “beyond DOCSIS,” such as the classification and enforcement engine (C&EE) that Pickens discussed, the task is growing no less urgent.
Industry leaders may scoff at DSL’s price cuts. (“It costs less because it’s worth less,” Tom Rutledge, Cablevision president said at the National Show.) Still, prudence dictates that operators have tools available to adjust data offerings to meet demand wherever it appears.
Another impetus toward greater control is the spread of high-speed data service theft, which PerfTech Bulletin Services’ Jonathan Schmidt discussed on the same panel as Pickens. Finally, there’s voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which is picking up momentum as trials move into real deployments, such as with Cablevision.
But primary-line VoIP will become a widespread phenomenon only when more quality-of-service configurations are turned on, allowing the next-gen technology to offer next-gen services.
“There’s a lot of exciting things going on,” Motorola’s Howald says. His paper at the National Show on “mixed traffic” issues, for instance, notes that all three parts of cable’s “triple play” are themselves multifaceted and contain variables that impact traffic management.
On the open-standards front, the industry will see PODs deployed. The tricky part of OpenCable is on the vendor side. Expect testing for OCAP compliance and prepare to manage a package of applications.
As for transport, there’s the pressing issue of optimizing VOD delivery. The convergence play is fuzzy, but that’s what technical trials are for. And as the growth of data subs begins to slow this year, the “What Next?” question will raise the stakes on differentiating that service.
Jonathan Tombes is executive editor of Communications Technology. Email him at [email protected].