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Execs spin, wait on modems

Fri, 05/31/1996 - 8:00pm
CED Staff

Anyone who made the trek to Los Angeles last month for the National Cable Show and visited only the hardware booths could have easily mistaken this "cable TV" show for a "computer" show like Comdex. While certainly not as massive as a Comdex, the NCTA show did set a record for number of registrants (more than 30,000), and the clear focus was on high-speed data delivery and little else.

Of course, this being the cable industry, there had to be some split of opinions. While everyone was discussing ways to implement high-speed data, two distinct thoughts regarding the tricky upstream path broke out. As it stands today, the industry is bifurcated between using the noise-prone RF return spectrum or starting with a telephone-based return and migrating to RF at a later date.

Once an area championed by General Instrument, the idea of using a telephone return mechanism to speed entry into the data game by operators of one-way networks gained several new proponents, including Zenith and Motorola.

Still another approach emerged at the show. WorldGate President Hal Krisbergh (former president of General Instrument's Communications Division) stood out like a sore thumb in rival Scientific-Atlanta 's booth, where he espoused the virtues of Web browsing and sending e-mail through advanced analog set-tops via the vertical blanking interval.

By the time the show closed, attendees were left wondering what the 30,000 people did with themselves, and few came away with more than they showed up with. While everyone was talking high-speed data modems, only Motorola joined Zenith and LANcity with equipment that has progressed beyond demonstration units. That fact has left cable industry leaders frustrated that they cannot capitalize on the market opportunity sooner.

To help speed the process along and to propel cable operators into the high-speed data market without rebuilding their networks with two-way capability, Zenith Electronics Corp. has teamed with U.S. Robotics to develop a cable modem that uses the cable network in the downstream, and the telephone for upstream communication.

Zenith can configure its existing HomeWorks Universal cable modems to work with USR's Total Control Enterprise Network Hub simply by making some software changes, according to Bill Luehrs, president of Zenith Networks Systems. Because it entails only a software upgrade, Zenith expects to have working units available within 60 days or so.

When a customer signs on to the system, the computer's resident telephone modem automatically dials up access to the U.S. Robotics equipment in the headend and stays connected for the duration of the session.

Depending on modem speeds and other configuration issues, the U.S. Robotics equipment can be added to a cable system for $30,000 to $50,000, which provides capability for 48 simultaneous analog calls and more than 100 digital calls, said Ross Manire, senior VP and general manager of U.S. Robotics' corporate/systems division.

Terayon Corp., which two months ago detailed a plan to develop specialized, single-chip CDMA (code division multiple access) silicon for use in upstream applications like telephony and high-speed data, displayed a prototype cable modem at the show.

To facilitate its entry into the cable modem race, Terayon will partner with networking giant Cisco Systems Corp. for routers and inter-networking expertise. Specifically, Terayon and Cisco will work together to define an interface for the connection between headend "concentrators," which collect and condense incoming bit streams from in-home cable modems, and headend routers.

Terayon's modem is dynamically configurable to send selectable throughput speeds of up to 10 Megabits-per-second in both the upstream and downstream directions. That's important in situations where an operator needs to support a variety of computing applications, including video conferencing, dedicated T-1 access at 1.5 Mbps, or more asymmetrical Web-browsing situations, executives said.

"I know this comment will draw a lot of contradiction, but I'm willing to say very confidently that asymmetrical-only cable modems will not scale in the real world," said Dr. Zaki Rakib, chief executive officer of Terayon, explaining that all existing private networks - Ethernet, token ring, FDDI and others - currently support "only symmetrical" technologies.

Terayon plans to have its new modem, called "TeraPro," available for at least two MSO field trials by October. Beyond that, the manufacturer plans to have production volumes out the door by the first quarter of next year, priced "competitively," at $500 or less, said Jacob Tanz, VP of marketing and business development for Terayon.

Shortly after the Show, Terayon announced the addition of two key personnel to the company. Dennis Picker, formerly director of Motorola's Cable Data Products division, has joined Terayon as vice president of engineering, while Dr. Masuma Ahmed has joined the company as director of technical marketing. Ahmed came from CableLabs, where she worked on data modem technical standards.

Meanwhile, Phasecom Inc. launched its P446 Cable Modem for T-1 applications, which enables full duplex, bi-directional data transmission at 1.544 Mbps. The T-1 Cable Modem units work together with Phasecom's Network Management System at an operator's headend. Applications for the technology include private data networking, LAN-to-LAN connectivity and T-1 telephony.

The cable modems are actually comprised of a broadband modem and a control modem. The T-1 broadband modem uses QPSK modulation to convert the signal received from the customer's T-1 transmitting device into an RF signal for transmission over the cable network. In the reverse direction, it demodulates the RF signal into a T-1 signal for the customer's T-1 receiving device. A control modem within the unit provides the local network management functionality. It is used to establish a separate and independent channel for out-of-band signaling between the network management system at the headend and each cable modem.

Hybrid Networks Inc. staged demonstrations of its new generation of cable modem data transport solutions, the Hybrid Access System Series 2000 (HAS 2000). Slated for customer shipment this summer, the cable modem system is comprised of components that can be installed on one-way cable systems today, and later upgraded to handle two-way data transmission. HAS 2000 supports multiple services, speeds and protocols in a single Point of Presence (PoP) server, according to the company.

Based on a client/server architecture, the HAS 2000 includes all the hardware and software required to provide TCP/IP networking over a broadband cable network. PoP servers connect to a cable headend, and a cable modem connects to a local area network (LAN) or directly to a PC. HAS 2000 provides personal computer users access to the Internet at 30 Mbps, a speed that's almost 350 times the speed of the fastest conventional telephone modem, according to Hybrid. In addition, Hybrid cable modems use standard Ethernet adapters.

Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc. and its Cable Group unveiled its new SPEED Station cable modem and DiscBank commercial insertion system at the National Show.

Meanwhile, the ebullient Krisbergh drew crowds to S-A's booth, where he was showing how a set-top like S-A's 8600x can be used to browse the Web and send e-mail messages with a wireless keyboard through a service called "TV Online." The process uses eight lines of the VBI and operates at 100 kilobits per second in the downstream direction and 20 kbps upstream.

While the TV is not optimized for computer images (TV pictures are interlaced, while computers use progressive scanning), the graphics are considered by many to be acceptable. In areas where it's difficult to read, the system has a "zoom" feature to increase the size of the image.

Krisbergh says he plans to field test the system later this year and roll it out commercially next year. The service can also be delivered over set-tops manufactured by General Instrument and Pioneer with some modification, he said.

But WorldGate wasn't alone in its idea. Wink Communications demonstrated Internet extensions to its set-top software, which is being integrated into GI boxes and has been licensed to S-A as well. The scalable software can be used in one-way, two-way and store-and-forward configurations.

For those with one-way systems, the Wink Internet Studio converts Internet content into Wink's InteractiveCommunicating Applications Protocol (ICAP) for broadcast to viewers. In the two-way domain, the Wink Internet Gateway converts Web, newsgroup, chat and e-mail content written in all major Internet protocols, including HTTP, HTML, SMTP, NNTP and IRC, to ICAP.

And finally, two weeks after the Show, Zenith announced a Web browsing and e-mail capability for a family of interactive TV receivers called NetVision. The company will work with Diba Inc. to develop a "module" that will be built into the TV to allow a range of services, including Web browsing, e-mail, and later, Java terminal applications.

The http://www.diba.com/products/netvision.html">NetVision receivers will have a 28.8 kbps modem and an Ethernet port built in, while an optional wireless keyboard will be made available at additional cost. Product will be introduced for this year's Christmas buying season, and this feature is expected to add $400 to $600 to the price of the TV.

The Diba software has a special algorithm designed to make the graphic presentation pleasing, according to Tom Sorensen at Zenith. The system will offer about 4 Megabytes of memory to display the Internet information.

While much of the NCTA show talk revolved around a variety of future modem orders and deployments, LANcity announced that it now has more than 20,000 subscribers on-line at more than 250 operational sites worldwide. This includes sites from California to Maine, as well as Europe, South America and Australia.

Meanwhile, LANcity also introduced quality of service (QoS) provisioning for its family of data modems. QoS enables operators to allocate bandwidth upstream and downstream so that they can establish a multi-tiered modem service structure (e.g., commercial, residential, work-at-home, etc.) and charge accordingly.

And there was no shortage of information regarding business relationships as everyone scrambles to get their share of any profits to be made over data delivery. In the realm of data standards, Arthur D. Little has been selected by the MCNS group of cable MSOs and CableLabs to assist in the creation of international specifications for high-speed data transfer over cable TV networks.

The announcement confirmed earlier press reports naming A.D. Little as the consulting company of choice. The MCNS group-consisting of TCI, Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cox Communications - along with Rogers Cablesystems, Continental Cablevision and CableLabs, are working to establish open specifications that allow cable modems to work in any system, in any location. Such a specification would allow the modems to be sold at retail outlets.

Honing a strategy to leverage its interactive TV software for use in high-speed data applications, Microsoft Corp. announced it will supply Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and two international cable operators with Internet browsers and associated software.

The contracts are a major win for Microsoft, said Craig Mundie, senior vice president of Microsoft's consumer platforms division, noting Microsoft's ongoing challenge to gain on leading Internet browser software-maker Netscape Communications Corp.

Time Warner will deploy Microsoft's Internet Explorer as the browser packaged with its LineRunner high-speed data deployments, and is continuing to work with Microsoft to determine whether or not to use Windows NT-based servers for future deployments, Mundie said.

Comcast will follow a similar approach. "This is further proof that the computer industry shares our immense enthusiasm for high-speed data via cable," said Steve Craddock, vice president of new media development for the MSO.

Singapore Cablevision and Compagnie Generale de Videocommunication will also integrate Microsoft's software into their cable networks for high-speed data applications, Mundie said.

In a related announcement, Microsoft used the convention to announce partnerships with 25 cable modem manufacturers, system integrators and installation experts, as part of its new "public networks platform." "The real goal was to assemble a group of companies who can provide turnkey installation, systems integration and support, as well as cable modems themselves," said Mundie. Among the cable modem participants: Com21 Corp., General Instrument Corp., Motorola Inc., Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Zenith Electronics Corp.

Microsoft is already testing cable modems from several participating manufacturers in its Redmond, Wash. laboratory.

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