Is there a fly in the standards ointment?

Sun, 12/31/1995 - 7:00pm
Roger Brown

While granting its historic proportions, one has to be skeptical of its chances for immediate success. This truly is one assignment that is easier said than done.

For those who haven't heard yet, an impressive list of MSOs and hardware manufacturers shared the dais with CableLabs during the Anaheim show. The panel announced its intention to develop a common set of interfaces and protocols that would permit hardware interoperability and interconnectivity, regardless of vendor. The intent is to hurry the development of high-speed data modems so that MSOs can capitalize on the incredible growth and popularity of the Internet and online services.

But that doesn't mean everyone sees eye-to-eye.

Cable network operators smell money when it comes to the Internet. Their broadband networks make even the fastest telephone modems look like snails. Anyone who has ever witnessed a high-speed modem download a home page or some other massive file off the Internet at 10 Mbps is left with one inescapable conclusion: that this is simply the way those services were meant to be used.

But to preserve point-to-point interconnectivity, reduce manufacturing costs and ensure that consumers can purchase modems at retail, the MSOs simply must agree on standards, if they are to chase the online marketplace.

The problem is, they want those standards in a hurry, and that could create havoc. The cable industry has historically eschewed formalized standards, preferring instead to let vendors battle it out in the marketplace. Consequently, it has no track record with global standards bodies.

Yet during the press conference, there was talk of working with DAVIC, the IEEE, the ITU and perhaps others to develop global high-speed data standards. But the industry wants an initial set of standards by mid-April. Of this year. People who have experience working with standards groups say that cannot happen unless the group is kept small. Can this group be kept small enough?

Already, a consortium within the consortium has been formed. Hewlwtt-Packard, AT&T, Intel and Hybrid Networks have already decided to work as a group. The Interactive Television Association has also formed a consortium that consists primarily of computer and telephone companies. The group is bound to get bigger, and more diverse voices will enter the discussion.

The fact is that this CableLabs-led standards effort is being driven by four large MSOs. They will see to it that their individual needs are accomodated first. From a business perspective, that makes a lot of sense. But is that the best method to drive standards development, or should the process be approached with more patience?

If CableLabs pulls off this assignment on time, it will be worth every penny it spends over the next decade.

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