In the golden age of the silver screen (sterling imagery, huh?) moviegoers sat in arena-sized amphitheaters watching a single attraction on a big screen. When theater owners realized they could make money by showing multiple attractions at the same time, the big screen was divided by two, then four, then eight, then 16.

In the golden age of television, the family gathered around a single screen to watch one of three networks. Then came HBO and CNN and ESPN, and the small screen fragmented like a rock hitting a windshield.

In the golden age of the PC (by IBM standards) word processing and spreadsheets dominated a workplace device. Then came e-mail and the World Wide Web and broadband, and the PC became a home entertainment device.

In the golden age of the cell phone (OK, so there never really was one) a convenient portable device let you make emergency calls. Then came digital and buckets of minutes and color screens and text, and now the same drivel you can see on TV is downsized and available on mobile. If you forgot to record Desperate Housewives on your DVR, watch it on your cell phone. Year of the multi-screen If the tea leaves are correct, 2008 will be the year where an attention-deficit consumer can get anything on any screen. Just as movie house owners needed more real estate, cable operators needed set-top boxes and wireless carriers needed spectrum, broadband service providers will need something more to make this happen.

It’s obviously more bandwidth, but getting there is the trick that will consume the engineering minds this year, especially as cable seeks a way to use what it promised the financial community was its final bandwidth expansion to HFC to deliver still more content to more screens.

Putting aside the industry’s tenuous hold on the mobile screen thanks to a shaky relationship with Sprint Nextel, cable still must figure a way to deliver more content via a pipe originally designed to deliver 82 analog channels. Things could worsen if femtocells start sucking the broadband return path dry for mobile competitors, but that’s another bridge the industry will be crossing this year. That’s a switch The economic fact is that cable must deliver more within a relatively finite amount of bandwidth. MPEG-4 improves compression algorithms, and DOCSIS 3.0 promises a long-term solution with channel bonding to jury-rig and accelerate existing throughput. Cable can always abandon analog all together – what the hell, the broadcasters will – or slice and dice the nodes some more.

The most obvious answer is to install switches, or at least move to a form of switched digital video (SDV). This thought, abhorrent to every old-school cable tech just a few years ago, now has more traction than a Hummer with all-weather tires. The question is, are switches an answer to the problem or a finger in the dike?

The multi-screen world is upon us because money talks, and everyone seems to think it’s saying consumers can be taught to demand video everywhere. It’s a silly idea, but so’s the fact that every guy has a mobile phone strapped to his belt like some 21st century cowboy as he strolls through Sears checking out the manly things.

Mobile TV? Bet on it. More high definition? Why watch anything else? More computer video? YouTube is no anomaly. How to feed all these screens? Cable’s answer, at least from this perspective, looks like a set of answers, none definitive. Jim Barthold is a contributing editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at jimbarthold@comcast.net.

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