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Modems, demos dominate show

Sun, 12/31/1995 - 7:00pm
CED Staff

The advance notices regarding the 1995 Western Cable Show said that for the first time in a few years this was not going to be a technology show. Instead, it was to be driven by new programmers and discussions of how to survive a competitive, converging world.

But the 23,000 people who went to Anaheim discovered that cable modem technology stole the show and dominated the show floor and press conferences (see related story).

But outside of high-speed data, there were plenty of other things for technologists to explore. While many overlooked the historical event because of its tardiness, General Instrument Corp. demonstrated live reception and distribution of DigiCipher II/MPEG-2 programming at the show. GI received a live, digitally encoded signal from TCI's Denver-based Headend In The Sky (HITS) at its booth and transmitted that to the CableNET booth in another part of the convention center.

The demo showed, for the first time, the entire digital compression system from the uplink to the real DigiCable home terminal, in a live situation that emulates a working cable system. The MPEG-2 signal originated at HITS and was delivered to the show via satellite to a dish on top of the convention center, and then to a GI integrated receiver transcoder (IRT). The signal was then sent from the IRT to the DigiCable terminals using 64 QAM for MPEG-2 decoding.

This is the same gear that TCI will begin taking delivery on as this magazine hits the streets. As widely reported, the technology has been delayed because of numerous design and implementation issues, both within GI and because of the MPEG standardization process.

While GI was obviously relieved to show its new digital system, set-top box manufacturers were also demonstrating how existing analog technology can be used to begin a migration path from simple interactivity to more advanced forms of two-way communication. Central to that theme was Wink Communications, which showed how its Wink Engine can be used to get subscribers used to interacting with their TVs. Wink was present in set-tops made by General Instrument, Scientific-Atlanta and AT&T.

The Wink Engine allows interactive applications such as news, weather and sports updates to be sent via analog set-tops. The software uses 128K of ROM, runs applications in less than 32K of RAM and typically adds no cost to the set-top box. Yet, the software offers full-screen graphics, 16 four-bit colors, individual pixel addressability, color cycling for simple animation, fades, wipes and transitions, and advanced data network capabilities.

Wink also announced a joint agreement with InterActive Digital Solutions to extend Wink's Interactive Communicating Applications Protocol (I-CAP) to IDS' InterActive Community broadband software. The agreement will create an open software platform that simplifies the transition from analog to digital content.

Also, CableSoft Corp. and Wink announced they will jointly develop interactive software applications for advanced analog set-top environments. In the deal, CableSoft's applications-including locally-based classified ads, interactive yellow pages and "LocalWorks," an interactive community directory-will run on Wink's operating system engine.

On analog cable systems, the CableSoft applications will operate as "virtual interactive channels," using the TV signal's vertical blanking interval to carry data to the Wink-equipped set-top. Wink already has an agreement to run its embedded operating system on GI's CFT-series advanced analog set-tops, as well as S-A's 8600x.

Executives with Wink and CableSoft said the development agreement creates a backbone system of hardware and software that supports interactive applications from data creating and input, through transport to the headend server, and on to the set-top.

In other news

Both ADC Video Systems and FONS showcased ways for network operators to send specialized services to specific demographic clusters. Called "narrowcasting," the concept allows network operators to target services to specific demographic areas.

ADC's system, called "HWX," uses 40-milliwatt lasers and external modulators to send a minimum of 50 MHz of dedicated bandwidth to a serving area, said John Holobinko, VP of marketing and strategic planning for AVS.

In that scenario, 200 MHz of bandwidth-available between 550 MHz and 750 MHz-is divided by four serving areas to establish the 50 MHz narrowcast chunks, he said. Later, if service usage indicates a need for more narrowcast bandwidth, the laser's output can be optically split and sent to two external modulators-doubling the amount of narrowcast bandwidth available to 100 MHz, Holobinko explained.

"This was designed so that operators can economically scale their networks-they incur costs for new equipment only when extra services are required," Holobinko said.

Meanwhile, FONS' new "FONSmitter" offered up a similar concept, also using high-power lasers with up to 32 outputs of lower level optical power for local distribution. Plus, said Mike Noonan, president of FONS, network redundancy is achieved because the same information is sent from more than one output source.

Both configurations contrast with another optical transmission platform that uses low-cost, low-power lasers closer to optical nodes for the same purpose-like Scientific-Atlanta's System 70 optics, which was also on display for the first time.

Engineers with Tele-Communications Inc., Time Warner Cable and others said they're evaluating both approachesÐchanging out headend electronics with high-power, multiple output vs. using lower power lasers in the fieldÐbut that the ultimate decision will come down to economics.

"These things are easy to decide: You look at the money involved, and pick the cheaper one," said Jim Chiddix, senior VP of engineering and technology for Time Warner Cable.

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