Products of the Millennium
It allowed cable to penetrate major U.S. markets, and most experts agree this single event forever changed the cable industry and defined it as a legitimate communications medium. Yet with each step the industry takes, cutting-edge technologies and dazzling new hardware are proving to be its hallmark, and are expected to lead cable into a new millennium of great promise, great technologies and great hardware, albeit with great challenges and complexities.
Internet access, digital video, IP telephony, packet cable, and a host of intricate services and technologies are expected to dominate the early years of the 21st Century. Just how all of these components work together, however, is likely to be cable's next big bang reality.
Opinions about which technologies and hardware have impacted the industry most since day one, and the ones expected to have the greatest impact in the new millennium, with some not even invented yet, vary greatly.
Cable pioneers and engineers such as Archer Taylor, Dave Willis, Alex Best and others, and new millennium technologists, visionaries and decision-makers such as Glenn Jones, Tony Wasilewski and more, have their own theories on cable's most impactful technologies of the past, and future.
Front-line engineers and technicians have shown a wide range of opinions as well, evidenced by the results of a fresh CED survey which asked more than 500 industry engineers and executives their thoughts on past and future technologies, and which ones have impacted the industry most. (See sidebar.)
Archer Taylor, senior engineering consultant with the Strategis Group, whose cable career began in 1952, believes four crucial technological developments have shaped the industry. First, the development of the set-top convertor in 1967; second, the geo-synchronous satellite launch in 1975; third, hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) architecture; and fourth, Jerrold's (General Instrument) compressed digital technology being integrated into the high definition television proceedings at the FCC, which according to Taylor, "meant that suddenly after 20 years of intense development, the Japanese analog MUSE systems were obsolete, along with untold man-hours of research by the giants of the broadcasting industry."
The future, Taylor says, will be even more compelling. "The anthill has been stirred up. I think we'll end up with display devices in the home like flat panel screens on walls, computer-generated directories, much more sophisticated navigational systems and more."
Yet with these impressive technologies, Taylor cautions, comes a caveat. "To say things and technologies will happen just because they can is misjudging people and the business. With all of the new technology in the mix, this industry will be changing by the hour."
The integration of those technologies into a functional platform will be the most dramatic event for cable in the new millennium, says Geoff Roman, senior vice president of engineering for General Instrument. "Internet and TV coming together and the realization of converging technologies and platforms will mean $135 per subscriber instead of $35. That will be the dramatic change," he says.Transformation
The dawning of fiber optics and the combination of digitization of the Internet, video, data and voice are the most dramatic occurrences in the past 20 years, and for the new century respectively, says Dave Fellows, principal of Pilot House Associates. "At worst, we have a dumb pipe that people can bypass with billing systems, etc., and a horrible danger to our industry if we can't re-invent ourselves. At best, we have a great opportunity for transformation, if we do it right."
In most cases, doing it right in the new millennium means Internet. Says Glenn Jones, Chairman and CEO of Jones International Ltd. and a long-time cable visionary: "In the late 1980s, we scouted the Internet, and I couldn't believe what I saw. I saw immediately its potential and thought of how we could use it in cable and education. That's when I realized how dramatic and important it was to our industry."
Perhaps just as dramatic a discovery, albeit 25 years earlier during cable's "seat-of-the-pants" era, was transistorized amplifiers, says Dave Willis, curator of technology and artifacts for the Cable Museum and a TCI (TeleCommunications Inc.) engineer in cable's early years. "That was really a leap forward in the early 1960s," Willis says. "The next millennium will see the rapid movement of cable and computers. And content over a computer is where the future is. People want changing content, and cable will have to make deals with the AOLs and others to expand the use of cable networks," he notes.
The deployment of video-on-demand, and a customer's access to "video libraries" will begin to impact the cable industry early next century, says Alex Best, executive vice president of engineering for Cox Communications. And it will be impressive. "It will be a world video library with access to content around the world, similar to Web sites today. The question will be how to protect electrical property rights of content. From a technical standpoint, however, the concept is for huge file servers in headends where content we haven't even thought of yet will be available," says Best.
In the mid-1960s, making available up to 12 channels through the use of microwaves was the technology which most impacted the industry, and the technology which literally elevated the cable industry, says Ben Hooks, a partner in the newly-formed Buford Media Group, and who began his cable business in Palm Desert, Calif. in the mid-1960s.
"Microwave really was the significant technology making cable attractive in markets it couldn't reach before. Then it was satellite," Hooks says. For the new century, he adds, it will be digital technology and modems leading the way. "We haven't even seen their full potential yet. They're amazing." The surprise technology, however, will be phone-related, Hooks predicts. "Phone-related technologies integrated into networks will be surprising. Our main staple of video will change dramatically."
For John Wong, chief of engineering and technology services for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and a longtime cable observer, navigational devices and set-top boxes will be the dramatic technologies in the new millennium. "I'm still convinced that network accessible interface devices (set-top boxes) will have impact and will be the defining piece of equipment. And, in the next five years, navigational devices will have a huge impact, but they must be simple," he says.
The introduction of fiber optic transmission, insists Tony Wasilewski, chief scientist for Scientific-Atlanta, has had the greatest impact on the cable industry. "It has enabled the economic expansion of existing services and the advent of many new ones. In particular, HFC has permitted full use of the reverse plant, and (is) the foundation for VOD, e-mail, Internet access, telephony and more," he says.
In the first decade of the 21st Century, Wasilewski adds, set-top boxes and home networking products will be vital. "By augmenting the interface digital set-top with interfaces such as IEEE 1394, USB, MediaWire, Bluetooth, HomeRF and HPNA, it will be possible to access video, audio programming, Internet and yet unknown services in an 'always-on, where we want it' manner around the home. So, the set-top will play a pivotal role."It's a 9
John Clark, president of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE), insists the future is data. "Data over cable and using cable's pipe to reap the benefits of the Web are huge. In two years, it's gone from a 1 to a 9 on a scale of 10. It's incredible to see our information gathering reach this point. The key is to utilize the strength of cable's pipe and develop friendly cable modems, because the world is shifting to the Web," he says.
And that shift is greatly affecting smaller operators, whose view of cable's technological future, and the technologies driving it there, is very different from a large MSO's (Multiple System Operator). "The advent of fiber optics, which opened the door to digital, I think, has been the most impactful technology for smaller operators," says Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association (formerly Small Cable Business Association). "It has allowed small operators to more than double their number of channels and compete against satellite services. And the defining moment was the launching of HITS (Headend In The Sky), because it was real, and do-able."
High-speed data, however, will have at least as much impact in the future. Says Polka: "No doubt, the key technology in the new millennium is high-speed data, in the next five years, and then it will be Internet telephony. It will allow smaller operators to offer significant new services."
Those services, says Trygve Myrhen, president of Myrhen Media and former Chairman and CEO of ATC (now Time Warner Cable), are available because of digitalization. "It (digitalization) has allowed compression, capacity expansion, new services and the ability to deal with data issues. Without digitalization, there's no way cable gets into the data business," he says.
Video streaming and the future use of photo-optics will have an impact as well. Adds Myrhen: "We will be able to use these technologies and services differently than anything we've seen before."
Pete Smith, senior vice president of engineering for R&A Management LLC (formerly Rifkin & Associates), maintains that satellite video distribution and the development of lower-cost fiber solutions have had the most impact thus far for cable.
"Cable would not have survived without satellite distribution. And fiber has led to digitalization, which has allowed the transfer of everything into the home digitally."
The new century, Smith adds, will be impacted most by Internet Protocol (IP) technology. "It will coalesce things in the home. TV sets can receive video, voice and data. The question is, will consumers want them on one device?"
Whatever the new millennium device will be to bring converging services into the home, its roots, insist the majority of engineers and cable pioneers, will always rest with the satellite transmission of 1975, and the introduction of fiber optics.
|Craig Kuhl is a Denver-based freelance writer who contributes to CED, Multichannel News and a variety of other high-tech publications.|