Many of the cable industry’s technical leaders are convening in Houston this week for the annual SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies. Some have already arrived.

In the place of pre-conference tutorials of ET’s past, the day-before slot this year is being filled by a separate mini-conference organized by PK WorldMedia.

As noted in this event’s program notes, "all panels to be moderated by Paul Kagan." That would be the PK in PK WorldMedia. And as those familiar with Kagan’s style will attest, that translates into the possibility of ‘pun’-ishing moderation.

"Suddenly it’s become QAM in the room," Kagan said, after the lights quieted the audience, in a trademark pun that played off the event’s title, "The QAM Before the Storm." Kagan brings not only wit but also experience to such events. He noted to attendees that it has been 40 years since his first cable operator financial analysis.

As with many industry events, this one is vendor-heavy, with only about 20 operator names on the list of some 115 registered attendees. Stormy weather The first of the day’s three keynote speakers was Scientific-Atlanta CTO Bob McIntyre (the other two keynoters coming later in the day from the event’s other two top sponsors, Motorola and BigBand Networks). Turbulence and change emerged as an early common theme in the event’s first three speakers.

"We’ve been in the middle of a storm for a long time," said McIntyre. "Maybe we’re coming into a perfect storm."

Two of McIntyre’s slides depicted three-stage technological shifts: first, from fiber to video compression to IP convergence; and then from dial-up to cable modem/ADSL to FTTX and all digital. If a big storm were indeed brewing, it would map to the IP convergence and FTTX/all-digital final points on those charts.

On the IP convergence point, McIntyre nodded toward parent company Cisco Systems and meteoric rise of such applications as Skype (100 million users in four years), YouTube (recently up to 120 million streams per day), and community sites facebook.com and Google-owned myspace.com (20,000 new accounts daily and nearly 5 percent of all Internet hits, respectively).

"You can’t build a separate network every time you want to launch a new application," McIntyre said.

As for facing ramped-up competition, including a proliferation of HD content from DBS providers and superior throughput of fiber to the home (FTTH), he walked through two basic options available and familiar to most operators.

There is bandwidth optimization, enabled by the "many tools in the toolkit," such as advanced encoding and multiplexing, denser modulation and switched digital video; and then there is bandwidth expansion, from 750 MHz to 860 HMz upwards to 1 Gig. Finance and operations Morgan Joseph & Co. Director of Research David Kestenbaum also noted various agents of change and opportunity reflecting the dynamic nature of this industry.

First, in reference to cable’s rising equity values, he said there was a "growing perception that cable is winning." He also pointed to "tremendous opportunities overseas, where penetration is not as high." And even as bottlenecks are looming, the business of services such as VOD is shifting positively.

"Cable operators have traditionally said VOD is defensive," Kestenbaum said. "But that could change by 2009."

From an operations perspective, industry technology consultant David Large elaborated on the pros and cons of adding capacity.

In the plant, he said those options include subdividing nodes, shifting downstream bandwidth to upstream, increasing bandwidth; and in the headend, they include recovering spectrum, using more efficient digital compression and more aggressive modulation and deploying promising bandwidth-efficient technologies such as switched digital video. – Jonathan Tombes

The Daily

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