The broadband industry met in Chicago in June for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s show, and Internet protocol (IP) received a hefty workout in both the general sessions and at technical seminars. In the exhibit hall, the buzz was around the High-Definition TV (HDTV) Pavilion, customer care apps, peer-to-peer management and open architecture solutions.
The confab’s opening session featured Microsoft’s Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, who had this to say on going all-IP: “If not, the ability to do HD will have to be rationed out.” As for what IP could look like as a communications medium, Gates called it “instant messaging on steroids.”
“Anyone who thinks cable is at some plateau will be surprised at what they see here,” Gates concluded.
Comcast’s Brian Roberts signaled his support for IP at the show, and indicated that other ops are investigating it. “The technology is rapidly evolving to this IP world,” he said. “We are engaged in trying to accelerate that transition.”
Roberts added that now is not the time to take a breather when it comes to making hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) systems better. “You never rest. I think that’s a huge mistake,” he said. “This is the time to keep investing in the network.”
Most execs seemed to fall in line with Gates’ and Roberts’ vision of an all-IP world. “We went down the wrong road in ’93,” AOL Time Warner’s Dick Parsons said, referring to the decision to pursue circuit-switched technology. Time Warner Cable is dabbling with IP in Portland, ME. “The uptake has been terrific,” Parsons said. “I think it’s going to be a huge business.” Insight’s Michael Willner agreed: “We’re all looking at it,” he noted. “It’s all about finding what’s next. It could be these individually streamed tiers.”
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell and his colleagues laid down ominous warnings to cable: solve differences, particularly with over-the-air broadcasters, or run the risk of getting the Feds involved. Specifically, Powell spoke about dual must-carry as an issue the commission is about to wade into.
“I’m disappointed we haven’t seen more progress with the industries working together,” he said. “People may not like the results, but they will be clear.”
Powell also tried to warn cable about asking the FCC to regulate parts of its business (program tiers, must-carry and retransmission), because it could lead to unintended consequences. “Be careful what you ask for…There is no surgical legislation in America anymore,” he told the opening session.
Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Kevin Martin seized on that warning a few hours later during a luncheon, with Martin saying cable needs to resist the “temptation to use regulations to fix a small problem. Once you go in … it’s very unlikely there will be a small change.”
Both sessions carried a similar message: existing regulations are in cable’s corner. “Don’t blow it,” Powell said. “This industry has a history of doing that.” The U.S. Commerce Department’s Bruce Mehlman said cable ops need to work on their image, comparing them to the pharmaceutical industry and Microsoft. “Everyone loves their products. But people don’t always like who provides those products.”
Subs on demand
Panelists discussed transport and server questions on the “Subscribers on-Demand” session, with scalability being the theme of the paper by Syracuse University’s Junseok Hwang. He pointed to the utility of several algorithms for scheduling disk issues, load balancing for reducing packet end-to-end delay and server caching as a way to reduce network traffic.
Two Motorola engineers contributed to this panel. Ardie Bahraini discussed the benefits of MPEG-4, and how to encapsulate MPEG-4 audio/video in an MPEG-2 transport stream. Doug Makofka noted the shift from channel-oriented (traditional) to media-oriented (on-demand) delivery systems and assessed the structure of the latter, suggesting that it is “too big, too fluid for a single vendor approach.”
Delivering true “Television on Demand” (TOD) will require a “new breed of servers,” said Robert Scheffler, CTO of Broadbus Technologies. Specifically, one that can overcome ingest constraints and enable operators to “completely de-couple streaming from storage.”
Back on the transport side, Artel Video CTO John Amaral proposed further reducing the costs of transport optics, employing Layer 2 stream aggregation and using a symmetrical reverse path.
In the technical session on standards, NCTA Vice President of Science and Technology William Check announced the transformation of the NCTA’s engineering committee into the engineering forum, with an expected “early fall meeting for kick-off.”
Check also noted the SCTE’s “critical importance…especially as the digital transformation goes forward.” The December 2002, one-way HDTV agreement between the CEA and NCTA, for instance, incorporated seven separate SCTE standards, he noted.
This high-level discussion, led by SCTE President and CEO John Clark, also included SCTE Vice President for Standards Stephen Oksala, CableLabs President and CEO Richard Green and Comcast CTO David Fellows.
From executive committee mandate to product certification, CableLabs’ Green noted some eight separate steps, which helps explain why standards have longer gestation periods than industry players would like. He recalled that Bill Schleyer, upon first proposing a standard approach to modems, had asked that the industry “get it done in four months.”
Oksala said that the digital program insertion (DPI) working group of the digital video subcommittee produces some of his favorite standards, because of their direct link to new revenue generation.
“We missed the boat on the set-top box,” said Fellows, who has been intimately involved in the industry’s data standards and is hoping to continue to drive down the costs of all consumer premise equipment.
Fellows admitted that standards have a potential “dark side,” not only in terms of the time but also the intellectual capital contributed in their development. “It’s very easy to lock down (standards) too early,” admitted Green, who said that CableLabs is “careful not to stifle innovation.”
The magnificent seven
Technology popped up during the Show’s final luncheon panel when Broadcasting & Cable Editor Harry Jessell pulled the Pace Digital Cable Adapter (DCA) from his pocket and asked the assembled CEOs whether they might use it to go all-digital.
“We’re very excited about the idea,” Comcast CEO Steve Burke said. He noted one immediate pay-off of making that transition: “Virtually all of theft is in the analog world.”
In unveiling its plans for the DCA at the show, Pace proposed the DCA, which remains in development, as a low-cost means of converting digital video signals for viewing on analog TV sets, an absolute necessity for any transition to an all-digital network.
As with the show’s opening session, this panel also showed that VoIP has emerged as a talking point for the industry’s leaders. “It’s ready for prime-time,” William Schleyer, CEO of Adelphia, said. Cablevision has been offering a $34.95 “all-you-can-eat” VoIP service since the beginning of the year, Tom Rutledge, president of the company’s cable systems, said.
Yet it remains on-deck, at best, with most other MSOs. “Organizations can only do a few things at a time,” Burke argued.
These cable industry leaders were also bullish on cable modem service and skeptical of the competition. “[DSL] should cost less, because it’s worth less,” Rutledge said.
With its evolving video product, cable also is poised to compete against what Rutledge called satellite’s “one-trick pony.” PVR and VOD technology, for instance, is not just about time-shifting, Time Warner CEO Glen Britt said.
Satellite can offer that, as well. But cable subscribers are at the beginning of a ten-year transition toward “entertainment-on-demand,” Britt said.
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