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Riding a new wave

Mon, 12/31/2001 - 7:00pm
CED staff

Unfortunately for those who ventured to Anaheim, Calif. last December, the 2001 Western Show was probably more newsworthy for what wasn't said than what was uttered by the 17,000 attendees.

The dearth of bodies roaming the floor (official attendance figures showed a 48 percent drop-off from last year) contributed to the lack of blockbuster news events, yet didn't seem to dampen the overall spirit and tone of the Show. Vendors acknowledged the reduced foot traffic, but also seemed pleased with the quality of those who did travel back to a renovated Anaheim Convention Center after two years of being in downtown L.A.

Yet, there were some significant deals and new product announcements. AT&T Broadband said it would buy 200,000 Motorola Broadband DCT-2500 digital set-tops next year to fuel plans for video-on-demand and other flavors of interactive television. Financial terms were not disclosed, but sources familiar with Motorola's set-top roadmap indicate that the list price of the DCT-2500 is $289 per unit. Save volume and other MSO discounts, the deal is valued at as much as $57.8 million.

AT&T Broadband marks the first MSO to come forward publicly to place a volume order for the new box.

AT&T Broadband said it expects to begin receiving DCT-2500s by the fourth quarter of 2002. In the meantime, expect the MSO, which reported 3.1 million digital subs at the end of September, to continue buying "thin-client" DCT-2000 boxes.

"The DCT-2500 will enable AT&T Broadband to continue our aggressive sales effort of AT&T Digital Cable, and expand our foundation of deployed digital set-top boxes for VOD and iTV," said MSO CTO David Fellows, in a statement.

AT&T Broadband, which recently began marketing Tivo Inc.'s sidecar PVR in a handful of markets, has said set-tops with integrated PVR functionality are in the plans, though the company has yet to order any such boxes, including the hard drive-outfitted DCT-2600.

In an attempt to beef up and flesh out its 2000-class, "thin-client" digital set-tops, Motorola Broadband debuted the aforementioned DCT-2500 and DCT-2600 at the show. Much more powerful than existing DCT-2000s, Motorola's stouter DCT-2500 features a 175 MHz CPU and support for up to 64 megabytes of DRAM. The DCT-2600 houses those features plus a hard disk for personal video recording capabilities. The set-top's hard drive capacity will range from 30 gigabytes to 60 gigabytes, depending on operator preference.

Dubbed "enhanced-interactive" set-tops, those boxes are backwards compatible with middleware and applications (video-on-demand, Internet access, e-mail, chat and impulse pay-per-view) ported to the "core-interactive" DCT-2000, Motorola said. Both models are expected to become available in mid-2002.

Motorola's new set-tops also complement the company's line of "thick-client" DCT-5000s, introduced at June's National Show in Chicago, Ill.

In addition to its new line of DCT-2500 and DCT-2600 digital cable set-tops, Motorola Broadband also has at least one other box on its product roadmap, CED has learned. The DCT-4900 is slated to be a "gateway" box, and house a 162 MHz CPU, the VRTX operating system (or a Linux-based OS alternative), a standard 32 MB memory footprint, upgradeable to 128 MB, a hard drive option, and home networking support for protocols such as HomePNA. Initial specs for the DCT-4900 also call for three tuners (two in-band, one out-of-band), three standard USB ports and two optional IEEE 1394 links.

A Motorola spokesperson would not confirm the existence of the DCT-4900, but said: "We are looking to expand our roadmap with additional set-tops, but have nothing definite [to share publicly] quite yet."

Saying the fledgling interactive TV industry needs to literally "open" up, Sun Microsystems Inc. has pulled the wrapper off a new appliance platform for server systems based on open interfaces.

Sun has gathered a group of interactive TV players–including Kasenna, Alticast, Agency.com Interactive TV/Visionik Interactive TV and N2 Broadband–to back its Sun Media Appliance Platform for control server systems. The platform, based on Sun systems and iForce business applications products, uses open formats such as Interactive Services Architecture (ISA) DVB-ASI, DVB-MHP and MPEG to deliver a gamut of interactive services ranging from video-on-demand to Internet TV applications.

Still in its infancy, interactive TV has been dominated by proprietary systems–such as that of Sun's archrival, Microsoft Corp. But observers say the industry is looking for a more open-standards approach to drive down hardware cost and increase choice.

The platform will allow content providers and network equipment providers to create interactive TV and VOD products based on one uniform server architecture.

Taking yet another "next-gen" start-up CMTS vendor off the table, Arris said it would acquire Lisle, Ill.-based Cadant Inc. in a stock deal valued at roughly $63 million.

Arris said it would buy Cadant's assets for 5.25 million shares of Arris common stock and assume roughly $17 million in debt, plus up to 2 million additional shares based on future sales of CMTS products. At $63 million, that's a considerably low price, taking into account the values attached to recent purchases of other start-up CMTS firms. For example, Motorola Broadband acquired RiverDelta Networks for $300 million, and Juniper Networks snapped up Pacific Broadband Communications for approximately $200 million.

Cadant, which has deployment deals with Lawrence, Kan.-based Sunflower Broadband and GCI in Alaska, markets two products: the C4, a carrier-class chassis CMTS, and the C4C, a compact CMTS. The deal would give Arris the only two CMTSs to obtain qualification for CableLabs' tricky DOCSIS 1.1 specification. CableLabs granted 1.1 qualification to Cadant's C4 and Arris' "pizza box" Cornerstone CMTS 1500 earlier this year.

Arris Chief Marketing Officer Stan Brovant noted that his company was developing a next-gen CMTS chassis, but had yet to move the product beyond the lab version. Brovant added that Arris' strategy is to kill that product and move ahead with the C4.

Cadant Director of Marketing Timothy Doiron said his company had been seeking multiple funding options, including equity investments and other potential suitors.

Meanwhile, Cox Communications said it struck a deal to deploy "hundreds" of Riverstone Networks' "RS" metro routers throughout all 28 of its U.S. cable systems. The "multi-million-dollar" deal, a part of Cox's plan to create its own national, high-speed data provisioning system, is key to a self-reliance project to enable the MSO to offer data services via its own network and gear. Cox "is confident that Riverstone's products will allow us to gain additional capacity, while enhancing our network availability," said Cox VP of Data Engineering Jay Rolls, in a statement.

In addition, Cox Communications has formally approved ADC's Cuda 12000 cable modem termination system as a platform for DOCSIS 1.1 deployments. ADC is currently in the process of implementing the Cuda 12000 to provide tiered data services to residential and business subscribers in several new Cox markets, including Phoenix, Ariz.; Tulsa, Okla.; Amarillo and San Angelo, Texas; and Fredericksburg, Va.

Adelphia Communications has started deploying ADC Telecommunications' Cuda 12000 next-generation cable modem termination system in some West Coast cable properties as part of a "multi-million" dollar, non-exclusive CMTS supply agreement with the MSO, ADC officials said.

Adelphia will tap the Cuda 12000, a "carrier-class," DOCSIS 1.1-based CMTS, to eventually offer an array of new services, including IP telephony and tiered data services.

Data communications

Broadband network operators have another network management tool available to them with the release of a new CMTS bandwidth capacity planning module from ChanneLogics. The new capacity planning and forecasting features are key enhancements to the CableLogics suite of management products, and will likely be available early next year.

With the new CableLogics features, operators are able to view actual and anticipated bandwidth usage patterns by subscriber, blade, CMTS and interface in detail. The CableLogics tools allow operators to view detailed real-time bandwidth information on both the DOCSIS 1.0 and 1.1 platforms.

Meanwhile, Interactive Enterprise released the latest version of its Conexon Accel software, an auto provisioning tool for high-speed data services. Uniquely, Conexon Accel 7.1 can be auto installed by operators from a Web download or from a CD. It is used to immediately install, configure and provision high-speed data services. Cable operators can obtain a Conexon Accel 7.1 trial license to demonstrate speed of deployment and ROI by visiting www.conexon.com/accel/.

Conexon Accel 7.1 provides complete provisioning, management and support capabilities.

Pacific Broadband Communications (PBC) has announced its integrated open access solution for MSOs, which combines a wire-speed edge router cable modem termination system from PBC with MPLS-enabled Internet routers from Juniper Networks. The two companies provided interactive demonstrations of the open access system, including MPLS with fast re-route resiliency, at the Western Show.

The system, which is ready for commercial deployment today, provides RFC-2547bis MPLS VPNs from the edge to the core to enable MSOs to segregate traffic for multiple Internet service providers and deliver and enforce multiple levels of quality of service for each ISP.

Texas Instruments has introduced a software solution that increases network capacity for cable operators. The company's TurboDOX enables operators to expand, up to three times, the number of modems serviced over a single channel, while simultaneously improving the user experience with an increase in upstream capacity.

TurboDOX software is an enhancement of TI's existing solution, utilizing DOCSIS 1.1 and Internet Engineering Task Force working group standards that do not require any additional infrastructure investments.

TurboDOX also uses algorithms to improve efficiency and reduce latency in broadband networks. The resulting increase in reverse path capacity enables cable operators to provide subscribers with data and a full suite of interactive digital services over hybrid fiber/coax networks.

Complementing its full-blown, DOCSIS 1.1-qualified C4 cable modem termination system, Cadant Inc. unveiled the C4C, a 2U-high, compact CMTS. Claiming to have redefined the stackable CMTS, Cadant said the dual-blade C4C can work in two modes: as a carrier-class box with one cable access module (CAM) acting as a redundant, "hot standby," or as a box capable of doubling upstream and downstream capacity when both CAMs are active and working together in concert. The C4C is based on DOCSIS 1.1 and EuroDOCSIS specifications, and is expected to reach commercial availability by the first quarter of 2002, Cadant said.

Integrated circuit provider Broadcom Corp. announced that it has filled out its next-gen CMTS solution with the release of a DOCSIS/Euro-DOCSIS 1.1-capable headend media access controller (MAC) chip. The new BCM3212 QAMLink Advanced CMTS MAC chip is one of the final pieces to be offered in Broadcom's complete CMTS downstream and upstream physical and MAC-layer solution, providing CMTS vendors the ability to meet the requirements for greater port density and performance in their headend equipment.

Already, ADC, Arris, Cadant and Motorola are planning to implement the Broadcom solution in their CMTSs. Ideally, by using Broadcom's chip solution, they could build headend equipment supporting up to 192 downstream channels and up to 768 upstream channels in a standard rack. The increased port density should mean lower cost per subscriber, and the new MAC, when used in concert with other Broadcom PHY devices, could support up to 1.8 Gigabits per second of cable bandwidth.

Terayon Communication Systems Inc. has introduced its TA 102 embedded Media Terminal Adapter (eMTA), which enables cable operators to offer subscribers IP telephony and high-speed data services. The TA 102 utilizes physical layer technology to increase scalability and ensure reliable service delivery.

The eMTA is based on the Terayon TJ 615 cable modem, which is certified to meet DOCSIS 1.0 requirements, and developed to be compliant with DOCSIS 1.1 as well as being DOCSIS 2.0-based for enhanced capacity and robust operation. In addition, the TA 102's implementation of PacketCable ensures interoperability with other PacketCable-based systems. It supports both primary and secondary line telephony service, and will include an optional battery backup and wall-mount capability.

Installed in a subscriber's home, the TA 102 provides support for two separate telephone lines via dual RF-11 phone ports. It also features Universal Serial Bus and Ethernet data ports for straightforward connection to a personal computer for high-speed Internet access.

HighSpeed Surfing Inc. has developed a modular cable modem system–the SM 200–which enables user-installed service enhancements. The SM 200 system (patent pending) is built on a cable modem base unit that is software upgradeable from DOCSIS 1.0 certified to 1.1. Additional features and functionality can be added to this base unit with user-installable, snap-on modules.

One of the first modules available, the SM 200 AP, adds an 802.11b WiFi-compliant wireless access point to the base unit, making the broadband service accessible anywhere in the home without additional wiring or service calls. The AP module also features a two-port 10/100Base-T Ethernet switch, and can be used as a standalone device, if desired. Future modules will offer a broad range of other new capabilities for the SM 200 system.

Pioneer tested the home networking waters by offering MSOs a sneak peek at the company's latest product, a modem-based home gateway device that combines a DOCSIS modem, router-firewall-gateway, and wireless networking base station. Operators are increasingly under pressure to meet consumer demand for personal networking solutions, and Pioneer hopes that a combined gateway product like the one displayed might help operators meet that demand.

The gateway device Pioneer showed integrates a DOCSIS 1.0/1.1 cable modem along with an 802.11b compliant wireless base station to connect devices along a personal home network. It also enables four 10/100BaseT Ethernet port connections, allowing for device networking over the wired Ethernet protocol. Pioneer may garner support for a gateway device from the MSO customers it already has secured through sales of its Voyager digital cable product line.

The Network Products Division (NPD) of Toshiba America Information Systems displayed a series of cable modem products at this year's Western Show that represent three industry "firsts." One of the "first" products Toshiba showed was the PCX2500 DOCSIS 1.1 certified cable modem. Back in October, Toshiba NPD was the first major cable modem vendor to be awarded CableLabs' DOCSIS 1.1 certification, for the PCX2500.

The company showcased Toshiba's first Voice-over-IP-enabled broadband cable modem, the PCX3000, which is PacketCable-based, and includes dual ports for telephone connectivity as well as USB and Ethernet interfaces for data connections.

Finally, Toshiba exhibited a brand new, prototype wireless cable modem, the PCX5000, which incorporates 802.11b wireless technology from Lucent/Agere.

Transmission/distribution

PCI Technologies Inc. featured its line of digital-ready drop amplifiers at the Western Show. The DigiMAX series of 1-, 2- and 4-port drop amplifiers includes SCTE compliant housings with rear standoffs to minimize moisture collection, and a ground block with three points of access to simplify the installation process. The tiered housing points all ports in one direction so that all wiring can be performed in a customer premises enclosure in an efficient manner.

The amps utilize GaAs technology, and feature low intermodulation performance, 6 kV surge protection, a low noise figure, flat response, optimized return loss and isolation in the return band, a power LED indicator and a PTC protected transformer.

PCI Technologies' MAXNET RF Management platform now provides users with the capability of performing both passive and active RF management functions in one 5 RU chassis. The active chassis is powered by standalone or redundant 110/220 VAC or -48V plug-in MAXNET power supplies and will accept both the passive MAXNET modules and the new active MAXNET amplifier modules. A remote powering module allows users to power the chassis from independent 24V power supplies and also provides the capability to daisy chain power to other MAXNET active chassis.

C-COR.net introduced its lumaCOR High Density Platform (HDP) to meet the increased demand for forward path segmentation generated by subscriber-selected cable services, such as video-on-demand. The HDP provides cable operators with a higher number of transmitters in a compact, high rack-density package, according to the company. The package will create 1:1 transmitter-to-node configurations as more advanced services are offered. The result is fewer subscribers per transmitter, and thus more effective network capacity per user, while maximizing headend or hub space.

The HDP consists of one or more 19-inch, lumaCOR rackmount 4RU chassis, housing up to 16 3RU hot-swappable, 1310 nm HDP Forward Path Transmitter modules, the equivalent of four HDP transmitters per 1RU space. A standard 40RU rack can hold up to 160 HDP transmitters. Optional features include integrated network monitoring and power supply redundancy.

Telephony

Arris has unveiled its CompleteVoice system, which provides operators with a suite of programs for planning, installation and support of telephony for IP and circuit-switched networks. The CompleteVoice program includes: assistance in developing telephony business models; identifying HFC plant upgrade requirements; providing network and product level integration services; providing IP, circuit-switched or mixed network telephony hardware and software solutions; implementing integrated OAM&P solutions that address mixed networks; and accelerating deployments to the subscriber base with training and service providers.

The CompleteVoice program provides operators with IP end-to-end or hybrid (IP to circuit-switched) network solutions.

TollBridge Technologies demonstrated its IP-based interactive on-screen-telephony (OST) interface. By using the television as the telephony interface, TollBridge will allow cable service providers to deliver the interactive application to let users make, receive and manage phone calls from their TVs. Using standards-compliant integrated consumer devices, client/server platforms, and IP telephony gateways, TollBridge will offer this real-time telephony interface for MSOs to provide to their subscribers via a standard cable TV setup.

Tellabs has enhanced its cable telephony system with new technology that it says will help cable TV operators reduce network upgrade costs by up to 30 percent and improve the reliability of their service.

The new Cablespan 2300 feature package 5.0 (FP 5.0) has a redundant architecture that groups radio frequency (RF) modules together, so if one module fails, it will instantly be backed up by another module to ensure network reliability. This architecture also pools RF module time-slots together to reduce the probability that traffic will be blocked in the HFC network. In addition, Tellabs has streamlined and automated the Cablespan 2300 system's software upgrade process to enable simultaneous upgrades to the network's host digital terminal equipment, reducing overall enhancement costs by up to 30 percent, according to the company.

Fiber optics

Wave7 Optics Inc. has announced its high-bandwidth, fiber-deep Last Mile Link (LML) optical access system, which company officials say eliminates the current cost and implementation barriers faced by network operators in deploying fiber-to-the-home and fiber-to-the-business systems.

The LML optical access system provides video (cable TV and digital, including IP streaming), high-speed data and telephony services (IP-based or circuit-based) to subscribers with dedicated and on-demand symmetrical data rates of up to 500 Mbps per subscriber, all on a single fiber. The Last Mile Link architecture is standards-based, cost-competitive with current HFC implementations and includes Quality of Service mechanisms.

New tunable DWDM return path laser transmitters from Harmonic may help alleviate some pressure on the return path. The new NDT 3059A family of transmitters consists of nine temperature-hardened models, each of which can be hosted in any of Harmonic's PWRBlazer node platforms. Each NDT 3059A model uses a wavelength-adjustable, isolated, cooled DFB laser that can be tuned in blocks of four adjacent wavelengths for support of up to 36 wavelengths on the ITU grid. That means less cost for operators to add new wavelengths or stock spares.

iTV

Artel Video Systems premiered its DigiLink 2700 family of ASI transport solutions, designed specifically for the video-on-demand market, at the Western Show. The family offers cable television operators a solution for centralized VOD transport networks by enabling the transport of digital video programming from centralized video servers out to regional hub locations over existing fiber optic links.

The DigiLink 2701 is a fiber optic transmission system designed to transport a single channel of industry standard Digital Video Broadcast-Asynchronous Serial Interface or uncompressed SDI over metropolitan area distances. The system uses dark fiber constant delay transmission and is able to transport up to 55 digital TV programs per ASI transport stream. To further bandwidth conservation, the DigiLink 2701 incorporates dense wavelength division multiplexing capabilities for up to 32 ASI streams to be multiplexed onto a single fiber when the DigiLink 2701 is combined with Artel's MegaWave DWDM multiplexer.

Two interactive content players have joined forces to create an embedded service navigator that can organize all of an MSO's broadband offerings in a simple user interface. Atlanta-based Incanta and Armchair Media are working to provide MSOs with a "toolbar" that will simplify a user's navigation of an MSO's broadband content: offerings like music, games, e-learning and video and cable programming that operators are increasingly offering to their subscribers. The navigator's embedded nature means that the MSO could have a customized, permanent visual presence within the Web browser, where subscribers would be constantly exposed to the operator's services and branding.

PrediWave has introduced a text and image on-demand (TOD) service which enables cable operators to transmit up to 100,000 pages of static text over one analog channel. As a component of the recently introduced PrediWave Digital Broadcast Delivery System, the application enhances traditional data broadcasting by providing consumers with access to text and graphics via their television sets for digital viewing at any time. This interactive function allows users to view information from a variety of resources, including newspapers, books, magazines and Web sites, along with the ability to conduct paid transactions in real-time.

With a PrediWave set-top box, users can gain instant access to all types of content. Each individual program or channel can offer a distinct type of content. Additional possibilities are newsletters, government documents or information, travel and airline data, weather, news, Yellow pages and a digitized library. With two-way interactivity, capabilities also include shopping, stock market transactions, third-party billing, creation of a personal telephone book and Web surfing. TOD channels can be self-operated by a cable system or licensed to other content providers, and each may carry embedded paid advertising or promotional messages. The PrediWave TOD capability does not require a set-top box with a hard drive to deliver content, but may be included as a means to provide storage for text, video-on-demand movies or other time-shifted television content.

Headend

Scientific-Atlanta has introduced new modulators to its Continuum Headend Systems product family. The latest additions are the 9825M and 9825S modulators, and 9815 Rear Interface Module (RIM). The 9825M full frequency NTSC modulator provides a monaural NTSC television signal on any selected cable TV channel between 50 and 870 MHz, while the 9825S full frequency NTSC modulator with integrated stereo encoder is designed for cable television headends that must encode locally originated or satellite-delivered stereo audio programming in BTSC stereo format.

The 9815 Rear Interface Module mounts in the headend chassis to configure a slot for a specified application module, while the 9811 controller module mounts in the first slot of the Continuum chassis and provides in-chassis control and backup features for the entire portfolio of Continuum application modules, including the new 9825M and 9825S.

Vela has released a networkable controller for EAS (Emergency Alert Systems) and SIS (Subscriber Information System) applications. The new Linux-based NDU (Network Data Unit) enables browser-based control and cost-effective administration of system operations via the Internet or an intranet.

At 2 RU in size, the new NDU is designed for all types of operation–those relying primarily on RF, IF and baseband EAS solutions, as well as those employing the company's patented ACM text messaging system for non-disruptive EAS communications. The NDU is capable of controlling up to 64 ACM modules and 254 channels. Additional options include remote telephone access and automatic alphanumeric paging through Vela's FrontPager.

Network management

SpanPro Solutions Inc. has introduced WebWorx Permit, which takes traditional wall map data, puts it online, and delivers it electronically, via the Web. Those capabilities enable MSOs and contractors to track, monitor and manage multiple projects in real time, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, regardless of the manager's location.

AM Broadband Services Inc., a subsidiary of AM Communications Inc., is now offering a software-optimized, Total Quality Assurance Service to its customers and prospective customers. The TQA program provides customers with a trained quality assurance staff which monitors a percentage of the daily work performed by the technicians in the field. The results are immediately entered into the technician's laptop computer and transmitted to a master database, where all of the information is compiled and reports are generated. The reports can include departmental and company QC results, billing discrepancy information, and individual technician performance results. Digital images of all inspected work can be made available in an easily-accessible Web-based program.

A new service assurance diagnostic application from Sigma Systems aims to automate the troubleshooting process used by CSRs and TSRs to diagnose service related issues along the network. The Service Diagnostics Manager, the latest addition to Sigma's Service Management Portfolio, allows service reps to launch pre-configured troubleshooting tests that classify problems as originating either with the subscriber or the cable operator.

By automating the troubleshooting process, Sigma hopes that operators will save significant costs in support personnel training, and reduce response time through quick diagnoses and minimal call-backs or hand-offs.

Customer premise

Start-up CacheVision Inc. unveiled its first family of digital video recorders targeted specifically at cable operators and designed to communicate with cable-ready TVs and analog/digital set-tops.

To help MSOs offer "value-added" services such as targeted advertising and personalized news, CacheVision's line of CVR-4000 recorders starts with the CVR-4100, a DVR that connects through a set-top's serial or universal serial port, and comes in two hard drive flavors: 20 gigabytes and 40 GB. The 20 GB model goes for $225, and the 80 GB product sells for $250. The 4100 DVR "sidecar" utilizes the VxWorx operating system, the OS inherent in DCT-2000 set-tops, and an operator-branded electronic program guide based on HTML and JavaScript.

That combination allows the entry-level 4100 to exchange command and controls with the set-top box, said CacheVision President and CEO Richard Johnson.

The 4100 is part of CacheVision's extended line of DVRs. The 4200, priced at $315 for the 80 GB version, adds an integrated dial-up modem and an IR (infrared) blaster, meaning it can act independently of the set-top. The 4300, meanwhile, adds home networking capability through an Ethernet port, which can be linked directly to an external DOCSIS cable modem. The 4300, also priced at $315 with 80 GB of storage, can be outfitted with an integrated DOCSIS modem if that arrangement "accommodates the interests of the operator," Johnson said.

Editor's note: For more coverage of the Western Show, please see "New Products" on pages 84-88.

 

Is GOD in iTV's future? You betcha!

While many think iTV will be something akin to manna from heaven, those in the know realize it's going to be a while before their bottom lines are blessed with bountiful iTV revenues.

However, during a Western Show seminar entitled "From couch to interactive potato," panelists intimately involved with a variety of iTV efforts acknowledged that there's mounting evidence that consumers are quickly becoming accustomed to interactive applications, like gaming-on-demand (GOD). In turn, panelists noted, this growing popularity of iTV services will have a profound impact on future revenue models for programmers, operators and advertisers.

David Limp, chief strategy officer at Liberate Technologies, told attendees that there is some very important feedback that is being generated by iTV applications, and operators should pay close attention because it's having a considerable impact on cash flow. Liberate has discovered that churn rates, not only to competitors, but from the digital tier back to the analog tier, are falling by as much as 30 percent to 50 percent. That, he points out, directly increases the cash flow from those customers.

He's also found that once subscribers get it, they tend to use a lot of different services. The one application that's gotten "unbelievable usage across the board," said Limp, is games. Not "twitched-based" games found on popular game platforms like Nintendo and the Xbox, but parlor-based games, i.e., cards, gambling for fun, etc., that are things consumers "just love to play with." He said that in a packaged tier, the average session he's seen lasts more than an hour.

Malcolm Stanley, director of product development for Rogers Cable Inc., said it's vital that operators find out what their customer's expectations are when it comes to iTV. Rogers discovered many people immediately thought of the Internet. As a result, his company built a premium offering which included Web browsing and e-mail in partnership with Microsoft/WebTV.

Stanley said the service "has definitely acquired a market" and is now available to an entire network of nearly 275,000 digital set-tops. He described how many customers are using the service 10 hours a week, with 20-minute sessions on average. "We're meeting their expectations," said Stanley, "which means they want a simple, easy-to-use experience in their living room that presents the Web content they want to see."

While Stanley says experience has taught Rogers that you start out with simple, uncomplicated services, that doesn't mean the implementation is simple as well. In fact, quite the contrary, he says.

"On average," said Stanley, "we see it takes six to nine months to roll anything out that's worthwhile. Even the very simplest things can take that long. You need to have the application line up with the delivery network. You need the back end to work. You need to integrate all of that on an engineering, broadcast transmission and IT level for billing and conditional access.

"You need to spin out marketing. You need to train customer support people probably twice because the first time they're a little shaky on things. And when you roll it out to the consumer, you have to be sure that it's extremely well-communicated."

Panel highlights home networking

Of the handful of panels at this year's Western Show having a focus on home networking, one specifically addressed the technologies themselves, and what could be expected in the evolution of devices and consumer electronics in the near future.

Titled "The Evolving In-Home Environment" and moderated by journalist Jay Junkus, the device confab provided a glimpse into the technologies and applications that cable operators will likely be offering to their customers as the home networking market matures. Much of the discussion focused on how the next generation of gateway devices will face the challenge of bridging cable architectures to the growing networks of consumer electronics devices.

The first panelist, Haig Krakirian with Pioneer Digital Technologies, further defined consumers' growing cache of electronic devices. He described evolving device "clusters" in consumers' homes: a home theater and entertainment cluster, an information and communication device cluster, and finally, a cluster of home automation products.

For Krakirian, cable operators can play a pivotal role in connecting these clusters to the outside world. While he described the benefits of each type of connecting device–a PC, a standalone gateway, or a set-top box–he expected operators to gravitate to an all-in-one set-top cable modem device to make the cluster connection.

Next on the panel, a representative from Arris Broadband, Director of Advanced Technology Mark Bugajski, made the case for a gateway product that sits on the outside of a customer's home to deliver packet data throughout. Current Arris gateways focus on carrier-class telephony and data, but plans are to include video capability and two-way connectivity to a smart remote control.

He described the prototype Cornerstone Converged Services Port, which would be installed on the side of a user's home, and would wirelessly connect devices inside the house. Coax connections deliver high-speed data packets, connecting to a digital fiber node on an operator's network. The gateway converts high-bandwidth optical data packets into standards-compliant home networked voice, video and data.

Bugajski also advocated a modular approach to delivering new high-speed and interactive services, mostly because of customers' differing comfort levels with new services, and because there are so many different flavors of home networking technologies. His recommended approach involves offering a base unit to provide simple data and telephony services, and adding service modules to the base station to simply provision new services as they become available.

And finally, the audience got an update on some of the trends being implemented at the micro tuner level, specifically, some of the design challenges in creating tuners and components for new gateway technologies. Kevin Lynaugh with Microtune explained how his company designs silicon level solutions for NIU (network interface unit) products like the ones described by the panel. He described some of the unique design features their gateway tuners have to encompass, including network functionality and RF performance specified through evolving standards for network insertion loss and return loss. He also discussed other issues being worked out in their designs, including powering, reliability and safety features still evolving in the product cycle.

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