Attendance and spirits were up at this year’s premiere broadband engineering show, SCTE Cable-Tec Expo.
Approximately 10,600 people made the broadband technology pilgrimage to Philadelphia in May for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers Cable-Tec Expo. That’s up about 6 percent from last year.
"A few weeks ago, I was telling people that our show opens on Mother’s Day in Philly. And they would say, ‘Are you crazy?’" John Clark, president/CEO of SCTE told Communications Technology at the show.
But, as the numbers illustrate, broadband devotees are still faithful to the promises of cable’s technology. "And even a better indication, we have sold 70 percent of our floor space for Expo ’04 in Orlando," Clark added.
Vibes at this year’s show tended to be up, and that came as a welcome change to doldrums brought on by some of the financial constraints of the past few years.
Rewire for innovation
Comcast President/CEO Brian Roberts started the good sensations with a promise that the MSO would "genetically rewire for innovation," and "advised technologists" to prepare to develop on-demand services and faster high-speed data and use cable’s network for IP transport.
Comcast, Roberts said, has been a "fast-follower" in the technology space. Now, the company will "step on the pedal" with capital investments. He will continue the AT&T Broadband upgrade and will aggressively roll out cable modems to staunch the loss of subscribers to satellite services.
"We’re not accepting losses to satellite," he proclaimed in his keynote. One way to battle the competition is to use cable’s networks for more innovative services, including pushing more speed through cable modems.
"We are going up the hockey stick," said Roberts, whose company owns the Philadelphia Flyers. "We should not be satisfied with one-and-a-half megabits" per second of data speeds.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave the cable industry "a pretty good vote of confidence … a current vote of confidence" during a conversation at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show Roberts said. Gates urged Comcast’s boss to further accelerate his interest in IP over cable.
Cable, Roberts said, is "sitting in a position unlike any other industry for the next decade." Despite a sluggish economy, Comcast will increase capital spending so when the economy recovers, it is in a leadership position.
Members of the CEO panel that followed Roberts’ address agreed the industry is in a powerful position. But, as CableLabs President/CEO Richard Green warned, the competition, particularly the telephone companies, have not conceded defeat.
"Don’t ever underestimate these large industries … they’re going to compete," said Green, who added that cable has "the most powerful network platform ever built."
Green noted that cable’s network has enormous capacity to meet Roberts’ call for more high-speed bandwidth—and DOCSIS 2.0 is moving in that direction.
Richard Roscitt, chairman/CEO of ADC, contended that cable also should pursue opportunities with data services in the small- and medium-sized business (SMB) space and should improve its customer service. "The worst mistake the cable industry can make is to underestimate the RBOCs," he noted.
On the whole, the panel agreed with Roberts, who, citing the success of Comcast’s recent cable modem rollouts suggested, "I think we’re ready this time around." However, Green tempered the enthusiasm.
"The interesting thing about this industry is just when you think you have it solved, a new challenge comes along," Green said.
Tear down those silos
"No silos" was the battle call that Comcast’s CTO Dave Fellows heralded at the CTO panel. With upgrades close to done, he’s thinking operations support. "We talk a lot about the plumbing, but what I worry about is the backoffice," he said.
Insight’s CTO Charlie Dietz agreed. "We have less than 1,000 miles to upgrade, which will be done this quarter. Now we need to focus on what we do with the platform, on services that customers will embrace, and the backoffice."
That of course means focus on the likes of operational support systems (OSS), which Fellows expects to spend "tens if not hundreds of millions" on.
"I’d be spending that today if [all the systems] worked together," Fellows said. "For example, we need to go to a world where the billing system just bills, and doesn’t generate trouble tickets."
Fellows noted that cable is late to the OSS game (compared to the telephony world), but that could prove an advantage. Now the industry can benefit from the advanced engineering that has followed years of lessons-learned by OSS vendors.
Beat the competition
Time Warner Cable’s Executive Vice President of Advanced Technology Mike LaJoie gave the industry a B+ grade because it has allowed satellite to make inroads. "We were whistling in the dark, hoping they would go away," LaJoie said. The good news is that cable has "stepped on the gas, and we’ve introduced more products in the last three years than in the previous 30," he said.
On the bandwidth management front, the CTO panel discussed whether now is the time to reclaim analog spectrum. "My thinking has changed over the last five or six years on this," Fellows said. "I thought we’d be the last ones serving all those analog TV sets, but bandwidth is too precious. We’ll blame the government [for the digital transition], but I’m looking for any excuse before the government mandate to reclaim analog channels."
"We’re like the Federal Reserve of Bandwidth. We can practically print the stuff," LaJoie has said in the past. He added to that thought when he said: "We’re going all-digital. If it will be in two or five or 10 years—who knows."
Fellows also pointed to cable’s ability to "manufacture capacity," with MPEG-4, DOCSIS 1.1/2.0 and PacketCable.
Both Fellows and LaJoie predicted that 100 percent of their systems would be 1.1-capable by this time next year. "And if you’re looking for a predictor of VoIP, 1.1 is a good sign," Fellows concluded.
Working the workshops
The core of learning at Expo is its workshops, and this year was no exception as attendees had the opportunity to go home armed with new ideas on the likes of digital program insertion (DPI), metro area transport, wireless home networking and voice technologies.
DPI really works
"Digital program insertion (DPI) really does work," Time Warner Interactive Media Group’s Steven Riedl told attendees at the DPI workshop. "It’s not my intention to have you think that that DPI is still a science project…. We’ve gone beyond that." (Riedl prepared his paper while employed with nCube, and presented on that company’s behalf.)
He backed his claim with the fact that some systems are inserting on 40 networks per headend. He also discussed how cable engineers can keep the technology moving forward to handle the likes of high-definition TV (HDTV).
On the standards front, SCTE 30 Splicer Server API and SCTE 35 Digital Cue "are working quite well," Riedl said. "With CableLabs interops and tests, we have multiple server, stat-mux and encoder vendors, and they all work in a plug-and-play fashion."
With standard-def, ad content is usually encoded at a higher bit rate, and the splicer has to compress the ad content into the stream. "With HD, most of the content is currently encoded at 19.2 Mbps for both the network and the ad," Reidl continued. "While some stat-mux companies are then operating on the content to turn it into lower VBR bit rates, there is not a big concern to match bit rates initially."
Reidl concluded that DPI will require a significant "testing, testing, testing" effort, and recommended that MSOs set up DPI equipment testing labs with real content from their local advertisers.
Marty Stein, senior marketing director at Motorola BCS, also emphasized that DPI is available today. "DPI standards have been solidified, and Level 1 profile has been established," he said. "Deployment trials are underway, and enhanced revenue streams are around the corner."
DPI’s advantages include that it enables pass-through of pre-compressed services at the headend. DPI also offers metadata including pre-roll information, break duration and unique program IDs.
Stein explained MPEG-2 video splicing—replacing one MPEG-2 video packetized elementary stream with another. "Performing in the MPEG-2 domain is more cost-effective for digital networks if services are not encoded locally," he said.
GigE and more
Deployment of VOD and other high bandwidth services has made gigabit Ethernet (GigE) common in cable systems. This means that operators must be aware of new tools that will enable them to efficiently use these pipes. At Expo, speakers discussed two of these tools—an emerging set of transport standards and coarse wavelength division multiplexing (CWDM).
The standards are the Generic Framing Procedure (GFP; ITU-T G.7041), Virtual Concatenation (VCAT; ITU-T G.707/783) and the Link Capacity Adjustment Scheme (LCAS; ITU-T G.7042). They focus on how data is mapped upon synchronous optical network (SONET) optical frames for transport, said Chris Skarica, Nortel’s MSO product line manager. Skarica presented at the workshop, "Metropolitan Area Transport: GigE and More."
The new standards will provide more flexibility than current SONET standards, Skarica noted. For instance, VCAT and LCAS combine to enable three advances over traditional SONET framing. They provide much finer payload "envelopes" which can be more precisely tailored to the capacity of the data transported.
Today, envelopes used in a transmission must be consecutive in the SONET hierarchy. The new standards allow the mixing of envelopes according to capacity needs. Finally, the capacity delegated to a stream can be changed dynamically as the size of the stream changes.
Implementing these standards is not the only decision that operators must make. For instance, said Concurrent Computer Corp. principal systems engineer Michael Chen, they must determine the best mix of 850 nm or 1,310 nm wavelength transmission. The former is short haul and the latter long haul.
Another key decision will be whether to use dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) or CWDM, Skarica says. CWDM, which isn’t amplified, is a lower cost alternative optimized for moderate bandwidth applications. Signals are sent over a large range extending over five wavelength bands, or from about 1280 nm to a bit over 1600 nm (the O, E, S, C and L bands). DWDM, on the other hand, is concentrated from about 1530 nm to 1640 nm (the C and L band).
The mix of DWDM and CWDM requires an understanding of single mode fiber. Though the International Telecommunication Union says that CWDM identifies 18 discrete wavelengths, the reality is that the high loss in the E and S bands means that operators can only confidently plan on eight wavelengths. Some of the sensitive wavelengths may start out fine, but degrade over time as their molecular composition changes. "Eight of those wavelengths are tricky to use," Skarica says. "The message is: Be careful."
Go directly to 2.0?
The CableLabs spec tells operators what DOCSIS 2.0 can do, but offers no migration strategy, said Marv Nelson, SCTE vice president, technical programs.
Nelson and co-presenter Ben Peach, a Terayon field application engineer, did not offer attendees of "DOCSIS Migration: How to Get to v2.0," a generic blueprint either. However, they did provide a menu of possible scenarios and a list of questions designed to help operators determine which plan is best for their network.
A "key" decision, Nelson said, is whether to jump immediately to DOCSIS 2.0. The answer depends, in part, on what type of modems are deployed already and on a cost comparison of equipment.
"(Operators) might be able to take a bypass around 1.1," he said.
The idea is to take advantage of DOCSIS 2.0’s upstream benefits first and then implement 1.1 capabilities.
Going directly to 2.0 doesn’t mean removing all 1.0 and 1.1 equipment in one fell swoop. Doing so would be bad policy because it would render a customer’s modem obsolete and force him or her to spend money on a new one, Nelson said.
The good news is that 2.0 is backwards compatible. Some benefits can be achieved even when used in a mixed network that includes 1.1 and possibly 1.0 equipment. In this type of environment, 2.0 will be realized more fully if logical S-CDMA and TDMA channel sharing is used.>
With 2.0, 30 Mbps upstream is a possibility, and consumers will end up using every bit they are given and will be angry if suddenly it is taken away, Peach said.
"Start managing upstream bandwidth from the start," he advised.
Moving towards wireless
"The greatest barrier to (wireless local area network applications) in the home market is the question of supporting multimedia," Lior Ophir, senior modem designer for Texas Instruments, said at the session, "Wiring the Home with Wireless Technology."
Even though 802.11 solutions can support up to 54 Mbps, they only are capable of this high throughput close to the access point. Ophir, therefore, proposed a hybrid coax/wireless network (HCW).
He described a situation where the wireless access point (AP) is connected to the coax network. Packets would be transmitted over the air or over coax, using 802.11 as the protocol, in the 2.4-GHz frequency band.
The result would be three packet travel options: all wireless, all coax or a mix. These options would provide the ability to guarantee high-capacity coverage throughout the home, Ophir said.
"(HCW) mixes the benefits of coax being high capacity with the benefits of 802.11," he added.
Ophir’s co-presenter, Greg Zancewicz, product marketing manager for Microtune, also addressed the shortcomings of 802.11, specifically when it comes to short-range streaming multimedia applications. He noted that 802.15.3 was designed to address the gap, and that ultrawideband has been proposed as an alternative for short-range communications. However, ultrawideband must operate in the 3.1 GHz to 10.6 GHz band and output power is limited to -41dBm/MHz.
With 802.15.3, Zancewicz warned that the "range depends on a number of parameters," including sensitivity criteria and the propagation mode.
Returning to longer range wireless multimedia, a goal of 40 meters is often cited. However, achieving this requires a large channel capacity. While multipath reflections often are seen as harmful, Zancewicz said the interference they cause can be exploited. Reflections contain a redundant copy of transmit signals, Zancewicz explained. Therefore, using adaptive antenna arrays and multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) systems, the reflections can be harnessed to increase channel capacity.
The vices of voice
Implementing voice services is filled with technical difficulties that require new levels of expertise, money and, most importantly, patience to navigate through the slalom from PacketCable voice-over-IP (VoIP) to connecting to the public switched telephone network (PSTN).
At the most basic level, "packet voice is very different from circuit voice," said Doug Jones, chief architect for YAS Broadband Ventures, at the workshop, "Tactics for Preparing Your Network for Voice."
Primarily, Jones said, VoIP, in a "worst case" scenario that requires at least double the accepted base level voice bandwidth of 64 kbps. Mostly, the extra bandwidth goes to make certain that VoIP calls have circuit call quality, including quality of service (QoS) protocols.
In a better case, CableLabs is researching new compression methods to reduce bandwidth demands and help cable operators to jam 24 calls into a 2-MHz slot.
Operators must also be aware that VoIP shares network space with existing data services. This becomes even more difficult if the systems run DOCSIS 1.0 modems along with the voice services because 1.0 doesn’t allow for fragmentation that later DOCSIS versions provide.
"Run at the fastest return path you can possibly support," suggested Jones.
Once established, the cable voice network must connect to the PSTN and inter-exchange carriers (IXCs). This brings up new delays and costs, said Bruce McLeod, Cox Communications’ senior engineer and PacketCable evaluation manager.
Cox becomes a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC), hooking into the incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) and long-distance provider, he said.
As a rule, the ILEC, fearing the loss of customers, is not an eager partner, which requires a "skilled negotiation person with a strong telecom background," McLeod said. Additionally, "if you don’t have one in your shop already, you’re going to need a skilled telecom engineer."
It could take up to 15 months—including negotiating with the connecting parties—and cost millions of dollars in construction and other fees.
A VoIP-based cable system can bypass existing telco providers, but this doesn’t appeal to Cox, because "we … just aren’t comfortable with the possibility of putting out a service that is sub-standard to what we do today," McLeod said
In the end, Jones said, implementing voice is simple: "It’s all in ones and zeroes; you just have to get them in the right order."
The following Communications Technology editors contributed to this wrap-up: Jim Barthold, Laura Hamilton, Monta Hernon, Jonathan Tombes and Carl Weinschenk.
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SCTE’s Big Winners
SCTE moved the annual awards luncheon along with humor and speed once again this year. Hopefully, Andy Reid, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and luncheon guest speaker, wasn’t thrown off by the lack of TV time outs. He admitted, however, that he was disoriented by the polite nature of his audience in comparison with diehard Eagles fans.
"I’m not sure I can talk without some boos," he joked, adding that when he saw the abbreviation SCTE, he thought he was going to be speaking to a "few tight ends from Southern California."
Kick-off occurred shortly after noon, sans coin toss because Les Read (HBO-retired) traditionally receives the ball (or in this case microphone) first. After making a fair catch and a few opening remarks, Read turned the game over to Keith Hayes, who for the past two years has led SCTE’s team as board chair. He threw a final pass downfield to Mediacom, presenting the company with the Chairman’s Award and acknowledging its success in bringing new members into the SCTE fold.
Hayes then handed the ball (er, gavel) over to Comcast’s Wayne Hall, the quarterback (oops! chairman) for the 2003-2004 season.
Insight Communications CTO Charlie Dietz delightfully played into the football theme when he accepted Communications Technology’s Operator of the Year Award.
"(You can have) the greatest coach in the world, but without good players it’s going to be a losing season," he said.
Football has a Hall of Fame; so does the cable industry. This year’s inductee to SCTE’s version is Fred Rogers, who currently is president of Quality RF Services, in Jupiter, Fla. Although Rogers now can claim a long and illustrious career, Read revealed his humble beginnings.
"(In the 1960s, Rogers) was living at home and liked to spend more time partying than searching for a job. As you might imagine, his mom was a bit frustrated by the situation. So when Comsonics called to offer him a position, his mother promptly answered, ‘You bet he’ll take it!’" Read said.
The NFL recently named Reid (not to be confused with Read) 2002 Coach of the Year. SCTE named Bill DesRochers of Time Warner Maine as Member of the Year, and Randy Bunnell, Badger State, and Keith Grunberg, Cascade Range, as Chapter Leaders of the Year.
The Large Chapter of the Year Award went to New England, while Oklahoma took home the Small Chapter of the Year Award. Alan Gardiner, vice president of network services for Cox Communications, received the Personal Achievement Award, and Singtel Optus won the Telecrafter Products Field Operations Award for the design of a CPD Fault Locater. Marcie Anderson, vice president of new business development at Cox, was the winner of the Women in Technology Award.
Finally, in case you thought the football analogies were completely off base, Reid himself provided the ultimate. He said his job as coach is not that different from the job of Expo attendees.
"(You are here) to teach people about your great products … and will feel satisfaction when that product kicks a little butt," he said.