Twenty years ago, there was wireless cable, a poor man’s way to offer 32 channels of TV programming ostensibly in competition with wireline cable. Twenty years from now, there may be wireless cable again, although it will be something very different – maybe because 20 years ago there wasn’t any Internet and people made time to watch The Cosby Show.

How cable defines its wireless act is a "super important hot topic," Susie Riley, CTO at Camiant, said while moderating a closing afternoon panel at last week’s SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies in Houston.

As with many of the ET sessions, this one started technical and quickly devolved into business – proving that what’s emerging is coming so fast that it’s almost emerged, and those who would look five years down the road might miss what’s happening this year.

Look at wireless, suggested Riley. "We’re not doing it for technology’s sake; we’re doing it because there are actually some business drivers … opportunities for operators who can figure out how to connect all these dots," she said.

There are more dots than in a 1080i frame. There’s Wi-Fi, which everyone knows and nearly everyone uses in the home even though it’s imperfect. There’s Wi-Fi in the metro – if you really want to talk about imperfect. There’s WiMAX, which is portable and stationary and promises to be mobile and offers potentially more bandwidth and opportunity than Wi-Fi. And there’s cellular mobile, which, while not shattering any speed or bandwidth records, is becoming broadband in its third generation (3G) of technologies. As a side note, some in the industry are calling WiMAX cellular 4G, just to confuse matters a bit more and add a few more dots to the picture.

And, not to be forgotten – at least not yet – there’s the joint venture between some of the top cable guys and Sprint Nextel, which is brewing still more wireless possibilities of spreading cable’s content onto into Sprint Nextel’s 3G-enabled devices and slipping Sprint Nextel’s mobility into the cable market. The fourplay Perhaps the hottest spot is the quadruple play, which opening day keynoter Bob Metcalfe so justifiably ridiculed. There is no such thing, he said, as a quadruple play – in baseball it’s three-and-gone – which is why some prefer to call cable’s wireless mobility add-on the "fourplay."

Whatever you call it, "seamless mobility has been a buzz for three or four years now," said Ken Jackson, director of wireless solutions (as if there’s a problem to be solved) at Camiant.

Several things drive the need for cable operators to seriously consider adding wireless to their product mix – and seamless mobility is only one of them. All of them have something to do with the way the Internet has changed the telecommunications marketplace.

"Broadcast video as we know it today is dying," said Chris Maloney, senior manager at Cisco Systems, laying all the cards on the table. "We have an entire generation of people that think TiVo is a verb."

And at least a partial generation – ask almost any college kid – thinks wires are for bondage. Those are cable’s future customers, and they must be served anywhere, anytime with any content. If they want to watch video on their cell phones or computers, cable has to figure a way to do it.
 
Operators, Maloney said, "have to adapt or you’re going to lose relevance … unless you want to be relegated to a dumb pipe."

Sandeep Gupta, business development director-broadband wireless access at Alcatel-Lucent, suggested, in a surprise for a panel called "Look Ma, No Wires!" that cable use WiMAX to complement existing wireline technologies rather than dismissing it as a freak of nature, as some technologists are wont to do. WiMAX, he said, is a viable technology – and mobile WiMAX can be an opportunity for cable.

"WiMAX originally came from the DOCSIS standard," Gupta intoned.

That’s like saying Abraham begat Jacob to a cable technologist. Even better, Gupta said, Intel is a huge supporter of WiMAX." And everybody wants to have Intel inside. About those partners Certainly cable’s partner in crime … er, wireless … Sprint-Nextel, believe in WiMAX. The dual-named mobile carrier is rolling out a nationwide WiMAX footprint to cover 100 million people by the end of 2008, starting with "more traditional data types of services" and eventually providing a "mobile broadband Internet-type of capability," said Ben Vos, vice president of core technologies.

This doesn’t necessarily bode well for a JV that is now undergoing "a lot of business challenges … and some of them are onerous," according to Ken Falkenstein, vice president of wireless engineering at Comcast.

But then, neither does cable’s investment in its own swath of Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum as "an enabler; it really enables multiple options," said Falkenstein. These options include supporting a build, a partnership or an acquisition. "Keeping our options open at this point is a good approach," he said.

The same could be said of cable and wireless. While there will never again be a wireless cable industry squeezing 32 analog video channels into the MMDS spectrum, and it’s certain that some time soon people will be talking about wireless cable, it’s not so certain what wireless cable will be. The cable industry, the panelists said, has the opportunity to define it – now.

"Technology is not going to be the limiting factor," said Falkenstein, speaking specifically about the Sprint-Nextel JV and more broadly about wireless and cable. – Jim Barthold

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