“The nuclear winter is over” was a cliché bouncing around the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ annual Cable-Tec Expo, held in June in Orlando. The vast potentials of cable’s triple (or quadruple) play offerings put a spring in many a step of this year’s 10,300 attendees, which included 77 first-time exhibitors (up from 62 last year). Not that last year’s event in Philadelphia was a bust. In fact, there were slightly more registered attendees last year than this. But a year ago, Comcast was still jump-starting the industry, and attendees were preoccupied. Engineers from Comcast’s Philly headquarters stopped by for a few hours. Others on Amtrak’s northeast corridor made Expo a day trip. This year’s show had a strong representation from Bright House Networks, which runs the Orlando system, but it also drew engineers across the industry hungry for technology. “They need to give us another day,” said one executive from a mid-size MSO, as he booth-hopped across the show floor on Day 3. (They also need to put more time between Cable-Tec and the National Show, but that’s a topic for another day.) Out of bandwidth?
Just how to frame the industry’s technical challenges is a matter of debate. For instance, the idea that broadband cable is getting close to hanging an “out of bandwidth” sign on its HFC systems—as alarmingly trumpeted in the June 14 issue of Broadcasting & Cable—is “unwarranted,” Chris Bowick, Cox Communications CTO, said at the annual engineering conference. “I know we’ve got enough,” he stressed. “The tools available to optimize bandwidth are there. We just need to deploy them.” Bowick and the others on the CTO panel suggested recombining nodes, advanced multiplexing and converting analog channels to digital as examples of ways that cable can leverage its upgraded systems without dragging out backhoes for bandwidth upgrades. “Tearing up streets is the last thing you want to do,” Charter Communications CTO Wayne Davis said. “It took [the industry] $85 billion to get to where we are now. It’s going to cost a whole lot less to get to all-digital.” Deploying all digital—the topic of one of the show’s best-attended technical workshops—is one bandwidth-recovery strategy already underway. Davis spoke to Charter’s transitional platform in Long Beach, Calif., pointing out, however, that the initial driver behind offering consumers the all-digital option was better picture quality. Gazing into cable’s future, the panel saw four letters—NGNA—staring back. Cox’s Bowick explained the basics of the Cox, Time Warner Cable and Comcast-led request for information (RFI) regarding a next generation network architecture (NGNA) and outlined its potential. “We’ve got to look at a next-generation network that leverages our network today. We need to open up the architecture to any and all vendors to get into the game, and open things up to the retail side,” Bowick said. NGNA will evolve through standards bodies and help “funnel R&D in a common direction,” he added. Getting this process onto a standards track, however, is a live concern.
“CableLabs coming into this is a very important piece,” Charter’s Davis said. “That’s what CableLabs was created to do.” Wireless, which could turn cable’s triple play into a grand slam, was another topic tossed around on the engineering conference’s two panels. Cox’s Bowick said his company has a group in place charged with sniffing out a wireless phone strategy, whether that’s developing a proprietary mobile phone service or some sort of resell model. Mobility and HD
In a similar vein, CableFax Daily’s Paul Maxwell and Charter President and CEO Carl Vogel shared notes on the footloose communication habits of today’s teenager. The upshot was their endorsement of the idea of marrying mobility and broadband, as voiced by co-panelist Brian McFadden, president of Nortel Networks optical networks division. Disruptive innovation is forcing the industry to pay attention to voice, in all its flavors. “The majority of your customers are going to have voice over your plant whether you know it or not,” McFadden said. Operators have, by and large, responded methodically. There is precious little madness to that method. Miron said Bright House Networks had just announced a managed voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) launch in Tampa. Vogel distilled Charter’s trial experience in St. Louis and Wausau, Wisconsin, with these plain words: “Your plant has to be clean, and your back office has to work.” The implicit question from the likes of Nortel is whether cable is nimble (or mad?) enough to distinguish itself in the quicksilver and increasingly mobile voice market. PacketCable may look quaint if and when broadband-hitchhiking, session initiation protocol (SIP)-based applications go airborne, perhaps via cable’s local exchange carrier (LEC) competitors. At any rate, cable is getting its own competitive act together, as far as standard commercial services are concerned. Vogel said that Charter is shifting its outlook on new builds to include the business market and that wireless plant extensions are an important way to reach these customers. On the digital video front, HD proceeds apace. Miron said 42,000 households in Orlando alone were using HD-enabled set-tops to view some 15 channels. As for whether advanced codecs such as MPEG-4 could be turned against cable, OpenTV CEO and Chairman of the Board Jim Chiddix cautioned against dismissing the capabilities of MPEG-2. Back to topic No. 1, the former Time Warner CTO Chiddix said cable’s primary advantage remains the hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) network’s “essentially unlimited bandwidth.” Something old, something new
That advantage held, Chiddix added, provided operators were “not just filling it up with analog channels.” A fair assumption, given evidence from vendors that serve them. Take the case of C-COR, once a predominantly RF shop. At a press conference, CEO David Woodle said the company’s acquisition of Alopa Networks and Stargus are only the latest installments in its evolution into a provider of multiple digital services over an IP network. The re-emergence of other assets, such as the status monitoring product line from AM Communications, which the NeST Group acquired last December, also indicate that investors are betting on cable’s nonanalog future. Along those lines, one of the biggest votes of confidence is the 25 percent increase over last year in the number of first-time exhibitors. From @Road’s mobile resource management products to Zylec Corp.’s power backup solutions, they covered the range of technologies that cable operators will need as they continue to evolve into full-service telecommunications providers. First-time exhibitors
Some first-timers need little introduction, such as on-demand technology providers Broadbus and N2 Broadband. Already known for its OpenStream digital content delivery platform, N2 Broadband announced a distribution deal with Norway’s Tandberg Television to extend its brand internationally. And with its position as leader of the industry’s rock-and-roll parties now secure, Broadbus could well begin talking about deployments of its DRAM-based video servers. Others are getting known elsewhere, too. SuperComm’s 2004 SuperQuest award committee, for instance, recognized Expo first-timer Mahi Networks for the deployment of its Mi7 multiservice core aggregation system in Buckeye TeleSystem, the CLEC sister of Buckeye CableSystem. The committee particularly commended Mahi for “break(ing) the SONET (synchronous optical network) interoperability barrier.” Riding the wave of interest in PacketCable Multimedia, Camient won buzz for its Comcast endorsements and agreement to integrate its QBUS policy server with RealNetworks’ Helix universal server to enable the provision of quality of service (QoS) for streaming audio and video. This year’s first-timers also offered less glamorous contracting and field work, supply services and additions to the 21st Century cable workforce’s basic toolkit, such as specialty drill bits from Bad Dog Tools and wireless line extenders from Arcwave (now being distributed by Arris Telewire). Cable mainstays
At least on the wireless side, vendors of various sizes and pedigrees—from Nortel, with its free space optics gear, to Wireless-Bypass, with its Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) channel extenders—also are building such tools to reach the coveted commercial sector. For its part, Arris brokered additional deals to distribute Colubris’ Wi-Fi access equipment and coaXmedia’s multiple dwelling unit (MDU) transport gear. Arris also announced a three-year global purchase agreement with Liberty Media to supply it with Cadant C3 and C4 cable modem termination systems (CMTSs), Cornerstone telephony gear and other products. First-timer Casa Systems, however, may have beaten Arris to the punch on producing a digital cable termination system (“NGNA-ready” no less!) that sounds much like the digital multimedia termination system whose design Arris unveiled in April. Other cable mainstays pushed their own technical envelopes. Motorola launched an advanced spectrum management CMTS module for its BSR 64000 chassis that addresses the need for a very high-quality return path, according to Jeff Walker, senior director of marketing. Motorola also launched an optical Ethernet transport product aimed at shuttling video-on-demand (VOD) assets at speeds of between 10 and 20 Gbps. Cisco Systems showcased a new line card for its uBR7246VXR. Among other things, the new processing engine has the advanced physical layer capabilities of DOCSIS 2.0 and integrated upconverters. “[The card] enables a modular upgrade that essentially [provides] double or more capacity than they could have had in the box before,” John Mattson, Cisco director of marketing for CMTS products, said. Scientific-Atlanta, echoing talk heard from Time Warner, unveiled a GainMaker amplifier that could bump spectrum up from 870 MHz to 1 GHz, thus lending some credibility to the notion that cable operators are running out of space. S-A also highlighted its BroadLan and Prisma CWDM and IP platforms, each targeted to specific commercial market segments. As for digital video, Harmonic announced that Quebec’s Videotron was expanding its channel capacity with DiviCom MPEG-2 encoders. Facing increased competition in this arena, Harmonic also introduced a new member of the family, the DiviCom Ion, which boasts a high-channel-density architecture. Another day, please
Keeping up with both the market leaders and those who want a piece of their pie is one full-time job. Tracking the arguments and debates of Expo’s educational forums is another. And there were plenty of sessions to track. SCTE Chairman Wayne Hall said this year’s program subcommittee received a record number of paper submissions. (To order a copy of the 2004 Cable-Tec Expo Proceedings Manual, visit http://www.scte.org/acb/stores/2/product1.asp?SID=2&Product_ID=307.) On top of those sessions, Expo ’04 featured pre-conference seminars on operational and deployment challenges and GigE transport (sponsored, respectively, by MasTec and Optinel) and several “bonus learning” opportunities, such as an HDTV seminar (see page 12 for coverage) and sessions on supplier diversity, legal issues and standards. Finally, the array of networking and social opportunities—the arrival night reception, awards luncheon (see sidebar below), Expo evening, Cable-Tec Games, etc.—put some attendees in a position similar to that of the operator quoted at the top of this story who asked for another day or two. The bottom line is that as the industry regains momentum, Cable-Tec Expo becomes ever more of a must-attend event, if an increasing challenge to cover and recover from. See you in San Antonio.
Awards Luncheon Standouts Member of the Year: Ron Hranac, a technical leader at Cisco Systems and long-standing contributor to Communications Technology. The SCTE singled out the former SCTE president and board member for his contributions to the SCTE-List, chapter meetings, and planning and international liaison committees. Hall of Fame: Bob Bilodeau, an independent consultant, and OpenTV CEO Jim Chiddix. Bilodeau, in recognition of achievements during his six years as SCTE president (1973-1979); and Chiddix, for his pioneering efforts at Time Warner. Large Chapter of the Year: New England, for the sixth year in a row, due in large part to its top ranking in the annual “Get a Member” campaign. Small Chapter of the Year Award: Portland, Maine’s, Lighthouse chapter, for its work with Time Warner’s career development program to foster SCTE certification. Chapter Member of the Year: Roger Paul of Comcast, primarily for his work creating the certification incentive program for the Central California Chapter. Operator of the Year: Comcast, for its massive network upgrades and other technical feats. (See the June issue of Communications Technology for the full story.) Women in Technology Award: Nomi Bergman, executive vice president of strategy and development at Advance/Newhouse Communications in Syracuse, NY. (See the July issue of Communications Technology for the full story). Milton Jerrold Schapp Memorial Scholarship: Louis Simons, son of Ellen and Robert Simons of Motorola. First in his high-school class, Simons was accepted to study electrical engineering at nine leading programs. Field Operations Award: Mario de Oliveira of Nuevo Siglo Cable TV, in recognition of his cable modem inspector. (See the June issue for details.) Personal Achievement Award: Greg Garabedian of Charter Communications, who received his BCT and BCE certifications. Chairman’s Award: Armstrong Cable Services, for its support of the Penn-Ohio Chapter, as well as its aggressive deployment of new technology.

The Daily

Subscribe

Cable Urges FCC to Keep 25/3 Benchmark

NCTA, ACA Connects and others are urging the FCC not to raise its 25/3 speed benchmark as the agency begins to craft its annual Section 706 report.

Read the Full Issue
The Skinny is delivered on Tuesday and focuses on the cable profession. You'll stay in the know on the headlines, topics and special issues you value most. Sign Up