The ambitious goal of the SCTE Conference on Emerging Technology is to encourage presenters and attendees to look ahead three to five years. Given how difficult it is for business planners to project even one quarter out, that is a tall order indeed.

Planning can certainly be overdrawn. (Think of the former Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plans.) Good projections and plans are hard to draw up, but they’re not impossible or even all that unusual.

Just last week we followed up with Saif Rahman, a Comcast principal engineer whose DOCSIS migration article in our November issue (an adaptation of a paper he presented at CableTec Expo 2007) includes spreadsheet models that extend five years.

Also in last week’s Pipeline, we reviewed the five 5-year trends that Comcast CTO Tony Werner sketched at the inaugural CableNEXT event in Santa Clara in late November.

Announcing today that Glen Hiemstra, founder and owner of Futurist.com, will keynote this year’s ET, the SCTE underscored this event’s future-casting mission. ET time-shifting How well does this annual exercise work? One quick way to gauge the effectiveness of ET participants in getting ahead of business and technology curves is to "time-shift" back a few years and see how the topics and themes of a previous year’s event panned out over time.

Let’s look back about four years to ET in Dallas. "All digital" was one of the themes, and one of the memorable bits of news linked to that event was Charter Communications‘ announcement of its all-digital simulcast deployment in Long Beach, CA.

The upfront takeaway was that three-to-five year trends have roots in the here and now. "Don’t blink," we wrote. "That emerging technology may have just emerged."

As it happens, digital simulcast took about three years to run its course through the industry. So at least in terms of that particular digital video technology’s deployment cycle, the three-to-five year window fit.

Some of the competitive drivers discussed four years ago have only intensified. "Satellite has been good at pointing out that not all of cable’s programming is digital," said Don Loheide, then VP network engineering at Cequel III. "That’s not so important on an average TV today, but it’s very important on HDTV."

Notwithstanding consumer confusion over HDTV, operators may be approaching the tipping point on the network infrastructure side of HD, according to at least one vendor consulted this week. "When a customer used to buy a headend a year or two years ago, they were talking 100 or 150 SD channels to install, and then four or 10 high-def channels," said Arnaud Perrier, Harmonic senior manager for encoding product marketing,

"Now we’re installing headends where there’s the same number of SD channels, but 50 or 100 high-def channels," he added.

On top of migrating to all-digital, prepping for all-IP was also on the minds of speakers in Dallas in 2004, such as then nCUBE CTO Joe Matarese. By some indicators, this theme also could shift into a deployment cycle in 2008.

"The buzzword is an all-IP headend," said Perrier, who alluded to related, ongoing work with an unnamed MSO. "It’s happening as we speak."

As for another trend seen to be emerging in 2004, consider advanced advertising. "We believe that home addressable advertising will become the dominant form of targeted video advertising on cable in North America," said Steve Reynolds, then OpenTV deputy CTO, back in Dallas in 2004.

We’re not nearly there yet. But as ET Chair Tom Buttermore notes in the accompanying interview, advanced advertising is one of the four key themes of this year’s event. And as it happens, OpenTV just announced this week that it has deployed Web Services 1.6, a real-time feedback interface to its Eclipse inventory management system, in five Comcast Spotlight markets.

Real-time feedback sounds like a prerequisite to effective addressability.

As for the "anything … from anywhere to anywhere, from anyone to anyone, at any time, (and) in any format" vision that Time Warner Cable‘s Tom Staniec shared in the 2004 pre-conference tutorial, well, some parts of any ET remain just that: visionary.

Any ET has its share of misses, but by toggling between ET’s past and present, you can find a number of hits, technologies that indeed appear to have materialized roughly on schedule. – Jonathan Tombes

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