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Cable modems put industry on fast track

Sun, 12/31/1995 - 7:00pm
Michael Lafferty

The cable television industry's intent to deploy high-speed data modems was shouted out loudly and ratified by nearly every large MSO during last month's Western Cable Show, where an unprecedented show of support for universal communication standards took place.

Operators and vendors alike appeared to be in lockstep during a press conference at which they called for a set of common network interfaces and protocols (see Figure 1). Dr. John Malone, CEO of TCI, said such protocols are absolutely critical if computer users are to continue to be interconnected over broadband networks just as they are today via narrowband phone lines.

While the show of force should rightly be considered a watershed event, so should the fact that this is the first time cable operators have embraced the retail model where consumers own the hardware. In the past, mostly for security reasons, the cable TV industry has been reluctant to give up any control of the devices that are connected to its networks.

Furthermore, such commonality will drive costs down, allowing consumers to one day purchase the modem at retail outlets at prices below $200, according to Jim Chiddix, senior VP of engineering and technology at Time Warner Cable. "I see no reason why these modems, when mass produced, should cost any more than (today's analog) set-top box," he said.

On the stage during the press conference were representatives of CableLabs' executive committee, which includes TCI, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Cox and Rogers Cablesystems. The vendor community was represented by General Instrument, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, LANcity, Motorola, Nortel, Scientific-Atlanta, Toshiba and Zenith.

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H-P's QuickBurst cable modem
CableLabs to coordinate protocol effort

The standards-setting effort will take place under the guidance of Cable Television Laboratories, which has been charged with the task of hammering out an initial set of protocols by mid-April 1996. After that, additional specifications will be agreed upon and released over time, said Dr. Richard Green, president and CEO of CableLabs.

Cable industry leaders are envisioning the standard as a global one, and as such, plan to work with established standards bodies, including the ITU, IEEE and perhaps DAVIC, among others. However, the MSOs very much want to drive the effort so they can capitalize on the popularity of the Internet that has caused its explosive growth. One thing the MSOs don't want is a long, drawn-out standards process that causes them to lose a business opportunity. "Clearly, we want to avoid government regulation," said Malone.

The interoperability effort got another boost during the Western Show when AT&T Network Systems, Hewlett-Packard Company, Hybrid Networks Inc. and Intel Corporation announced their intention to jointly develop open cable modem specifications by the end of 1995. Christened the Broadband Link Team (BLT), the four-member coalition said that once a set of specifications was arrived at, they would submit them to the appropriate standards committees, cable operating companies and CableLabs for their review and recommendations.

The capability (and potential profitability) of broadband networks to deliver multimedia data to PCs at speeds up to 1,000 times faster than today's "high-speed" telephone modems (generally 14.4 or 28.8 Kbps) was certainly not lost on the BLT. "The intersection of powerful home computing and high bandwidth communications," said Avram C. Miller, Intel vice president of corporate business development, "is creating the most powerful new medium since the invention of television. But to bring this medium within the reach of most consumers will require the economies and flexibility of interoperable technologies."

The BLT's jump into the race for modem protocols, at least for its members, is not seen as competition, but as a complement to the CableLabs protocol effort. In fact, the BLT intends to publish its initial, "version 1" spec (it was scheduled for release sometime last month), then seek comment from the industry. Following that, the group will follow the specs that come out of the CableLabs work and release a "version 2" of its software and interfaces when they are known.

The rush for modem protocols has another organization joining the crowded race-the Interactive Television Association (ITA). During the Western Show, the ITA's Broadband PC Council met to begin planning its work in addressing technology standards, consumer marketing and content development issues related to the launch of cable modem services throughout the country.

The 25-member Council is a broad mix of manufacturers, cable operators, content providers and RBOCs (including Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, Pacific Telesis and US West). This diversity in membership, according to Andrew Sernovitz, ITA's president, will hopefully bring about a faster, smoother deployment of data communications over cable TV for all concerned.

"We're unique in that we're the only group that's equal parts hardware, wires and content," says Sernovitz. "And, while standards are relevant to what we're doing, we won't be authoring standards per se.

"The council is likely to be a translator, working on things that ease the transition. We want to be able to say, 'Here's what these other bodies are working on, here's what it means to you, the cable operator...here's what it means to you, the content provider.' We want to be able to provide planning tools for people so they...can get the cable modem business past the start-up stage as fast as possible, whether it's developing appropriate content, hardware or infrastructure during the transition."

Modems make headway in marketplace
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Motorola's CyberSURFR cable modem

All this jockeying for position in the race to establish protocols shouldn't take away from the fact that cable modems are a reality and are being deployed in a variety of ways. Motorola's CyberSURFR cable modem and Cable Router infrastructure products got the lion's share of attention at the recent Western Show, when it was announced they had been chosen by three major operators for planned trials and rollouts in 1996.

The three "agreements in principle" dealt with orders from TCI (200,000 units), Comcast Corporation (100,000 units) and Time Warner Cable (50,000 units). The combined agreements put the Motorola products at the leading edge of the cable modem wave and revenues with a potential value of $105 to $175 million (using a ballpark unit cost of $300 to $500 each).

Hewlett-Packard's QuickBurst cable modem received a boost from Comcast Corporation as well, with an order of up to 150,000 units from the nation's third largest cable operator. Comcast's rollout of the QuickBurst modems could take place in such markets as Baltimore and Philadelphia later this year.

A unique campus-wide cable TV-based computer network at Boston College, dubbed "Project Agora" (Gathering Place), is the platform for the purchase of 5,000 LANcity Personal Cable Modems by Continental Cablevision, the nation's fourth largest MSO.

The campus network features 18 independent fiber nodes, each of which feeds drop locations via coaxial cable. As a result, an electronic community of 2,500 classrooms, 400 administrative offices and 6,000 dormitory rooms has been established. Continental will deploy the 5,000 LANcity modems at home offices and city government locations throughout New England beginning this year.

In other related cable modem developments, Time Warner Cable's San Diego Division announced it will start technical trials of a cable TV high-speed data transfer system with Toshiba America. The TWC/Toshiba trial will run until the end of May 1996.

Pricing issues

While the likes of Time Warner, TCI, Continental and Comcast are gearing up for their various cable modem trials and rollouts, Viacom and Intel have taken their 13-month Castro Valley, Calif. trial to the next important level-pricing. As one of the largest, longest-running broadband data marketing trials, this latest trial phase will produce a wealth of information on just how much consumers are willing to cough up for cable data services.

The initial pricing plan offers trial participants two levels of access on a flat-fee basis. Premium services will be offered and priced separately. Of those initially approached to switch from free service to a paid access arrangement, officials report an encouraging high conversion rate, said to be near 90 percent.

With all this activity going on it's difficult for operators to keep up with who's offering what and when it will be available. Yet many are interested in satisfying their modem curiosity as soon as possible. (See table, next page.)

New product offerings include: General Instrument's asymmetrical "SURFBoard" modem with telephone return for near-term deployment; Hewlett-Packard's QuickBurst modem which is expected to be in full production by mid-1996; LANcity's Personal Cable TV modem (LCP) with its 10 Mbps symmetrical (and asymmetrical capability) configuration; Motorola's CyberSURFR modem; and a new family of cable modems that will deliver up to 40 Mbps of digital data from Zenith. Closing fast are other modem efforts by ADC Telecommunications, Com21, Pioneer New Media Technologies and Scientific-Atlanta.

Given the talk of pending protocols and a full roster of modem products rushing to the marketplace, many MSOs are interested in creating a new revenue stream without shutting the door on future developments. Digital Equipment Corp. is trying to help MSOs cut through the clutter with its new Cable Industry Network Competency Center (CINCC).

Located in Littleton, Mass., the CINCC has been established to provide network consulting, integration and management services on a vendor-neutral basis. The Center staff brings its multi-disciplinary expertise together to provide flexible, modular and economical network solutions that address each client's individual strategic business needs.

While the dawning of the cable TV data communications revolution poses all kinds of questions for MSOs individually and as a group, it also puts service providers on the spot as well. For the first time, compared to today's rather pokey modem speeds (generally 14.4 or 28.8 Kbps), true "high-speed" data communications will finally become a reality with cable modems.

Yet tens of thousands of consumers sucking down all sorts of multimedia data on their own digital superhighways that are 10 Mbps wide or larger could put a real strain on the system and its contents as it's constructed today. To help avoid any future megabit traffic jam, Motorola's Multimedia Group has announced the formation of a Broadband Applications Forum.

The forum has been designed to bring leading broadband equipment manufacturers, content developers and packagers together to plan the next-generation of interactive data and video applications. Led by Motorola, the forum will include major on-line service representatives, as well as participants from the interactive game, electronic commerce, videoconferencing and entertainment industries.

According to James M. Phillips, corporate vice president and general manager of Motorola's worldwide multimedia distribution and marketing division, the goals the forum will be trying to achieve are in everyone's best interests. "Operators are interested in turnkey networks," says Phillips. "This forum will allow companies to work together to make technology come alive with exciting new content and applications."

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