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Making Its Mark

Fri, 02/28/2003 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Assistant Editor


Whether it's work tied to high-speed data, digital and high-definition television, IP telephony or video-on-demand, CableLabs has more than its share of irons in the fire these days.

Keeping track of all of those activities throughout each year is a challenge of its own, especially considering they all seem to be undergoing perpetual change and mutation. Broken down by project, what follows is an update of what CableLabs is working on now, as well as what's on the docket for the industry's Louisville, Colo.-based R&D house.

DOCSIS

DOCSIS eclipsed a major milestone in late December, when CableLabs stamped its first-ever approvals on gear based on DOCSIS 2.0, an advanced spec that mitigates noise and expands cable's upstream path several fold. CableLabs certified cable modems or reference designs from five vendors (Motorola Broadband, Scientific-Atlanta, Texas Instruments, Terayon Communication Systems and Xrosstech), and approved one cable modem termination system from Terayon, the BW3500, which uses silicon from its Imedia Semiconductor spin-off.

More than double that number of vendors submitted consumer-side products for DOCSIS 2.0 testing in wave 25, including: Ambit, Arris, Castlenet, Com21, Hitron, Linksys, Motorola Broadband, Scientific-Atlanta, Terayon, Thomson and Toshiba.

CableLabs, however, did not receive any new CMTSs for DOCSIS 2.0 qualification testing during the current wave. That's primarily because Broadcom Corp.'s 2.0 chipsets won't be ready until the second quarter of 2003, several CMTS vendors disclosed.

Along with a new rate card, 2003 also welcomed the first CableLabs' "short-wave" (SW), a new approach that primarily tests for minor technical issues and "paper" changes related to DOCSIS-based consumer premises equipment.

"CableLabs added the short-wave concept this year in order to accommodate the needs of DOCSIS suppliers," says Dr. Richard Green, president and CEO of CableLabs.

With short-waves, he adds, vendors "don't have to wait until another big [certification wave] comes along," Green says.

Short-waves will expand to involve projects and specs outside of DOCSIS. Under the current set-up, short-waves for most programs

(DOCSIS, CableHome, PacketCable, etc.) will be activated two waves after the first products receive certification/qualification for a particular specification.

DOCSIS 1.1 short-waves will begin in wave 26, followed by CableHome 1.0, PacketCable 1.0 (CMTS and multimedia terminal adapters only), and DOCSIS 2.0 short-waves in certification wave 27, which begins September 2.

Each full certification wave is comprised of three short-waves (see chart, p. 24). CableLabs launched the SW process in wave 25.

CableLabs is also progressing with eDOCSIS, a specification for devices that support embedded cable modem functionality. The DOCSIS board approved that project in August 2002. CableLabs began testing embedded products for eDOCSIS compliance in the current testing wave.

If a manufacturer wants to build a DOCSIS-enabled multimedia terminal adapter, for example, it will likely share the same power supply. That device will need to comply with the PacketCable spec for the MTA and the DOCSIS spec for the cable modem. The same applies to CableHome products that need to adhere to CableLabs' home networking spec and the DOCSIS component for its internal cable modem.

The same rules might also apply to set-top boxes with on-board DOCSIS-based cable modems that share the box's memory and power, but CableLabs has yet to certify those types of products.

Beginning this year, CableLabs has also made efforts to lighten the financial load for vendors that submit products that require certification or adherence to multiple specifications.

CableHome

Though HSD services based on DOCSIS technology continue to proliferate, home networking technology is also starting to spread its wings on its way to reaching mainstream consumers.

Still, home networking technology– whether it's used to share printers or the broadband pipe itself with other PCs and even gaming consoles–remains relatively difficult for non-techies to setup and configure.

That's where CableHome appears to be stepping in. While the vendors themselves provide support, cable operators now have a window of opportunity to extend themselves into this area and build new revenue streams.

Two manufacturers–Linksys and Netgear–won certification for cable modem gateways based on CableHome 1.0 specifications following wave 24. Wave 25 welcomed another product from Linksys as well as gateways from Ambit, Motorola Broadband and Thomson.

CableLabs is also working on the 1.1 version of CableHome. That version will enable cable operators to add managed services, including firewalls, to their home networking service menu. The CableLabs business team approved CableHome 1.1 on Jan. 30, but has yet to say when it plans to issue the spec.

PacketCable

Certification wave 24 also served as a milestone wave for PacketCable 1.0, an infrastructure built on top of the QoS-sensitive DOCSIS 1.1 specification that will lay the foundation for packet-based services, including IP telephony.

That wave was the first to hand out passing grades on multimedia terminal adapters and CMTSs based on PacketCable 1.0. More specifically, CableLabs awarded certification to MTAs from Arris and Toshiba and CMTSs from Cisco Systems and Terayon.

Wave 25, slated to conclude on April 4, could become even more bountiful for PacketCable, as three MTA vendors (Arris, Motorola Broadband and Scientific-Atlanta) and five CMTS makers (Arris, ADC, Cisco, Motorola Broadband and Terayon) submitted equipment for testing.

Wave 25 also became the first to test call management servers, or softswitches, against the 1.0 version of the spec. Three vendors submitted devices for the wave: Cedar Point Communications, Cisco and Syndeo Corp.

Though CableLabs has expanded PacketCable 1.0 testing to include three components (MTAs, CMTSs and call management servers), there are still plenty more elements to add, including media gateways, media gateway controllers, signaling gateways, record keeping servers, provisioning servers and key distribution centers. "The idea is to assimilate new [components] each certification wave if we can," Green says.

At this point, CableLabs is already organizing interoperability events to test media gateways and media gateway controllers.

While CableLabs continues to trudge down a testing path for the myriad components of the PacketCable platform, the R&D house is also moving ahead on specifications for PacketCable Multimedia. That specification will define extensions to the PacketCable 1.x architecture that are designed to deliver real-time interactive (and potentially bursty) applications and content, such as games, music and movies over IP.

That, of course, would take the specification well beyond the first major application for which it was designed: IP telephony.

CableLabs officials declined to say specifically when the Multimedia specification would be completed, other than to note that the advanced spec will be released "shortly." At press time, the spec was undergoing review with a pool of vendors that have signed non-disclosure agreements. It could be out as early as this month.

OpenCable

Although several MSOs are implementing set-top retail strategies with boxes based on proprietary Motorola Broadband and S-A conditional access systems, the OpenCable project continues to head forward.

These days, CableLabs is preparing to accommodate television sets and other "hosts" developed under the one-way, "plug-and-play" agreement that was recently hammered out by the cable and consumer electronics industries.

"We have manufacturers here scheduling times with the television sets and one-way devices that use PODs (point-of-deployment modules) that can receive but not interact," Green says, noting that CableLabs and the Consumer Electronics Association are in the process of agreeing how to conduct testing in that environment. "That is coming along. We're about two-thirds of the way done," Green says.

Cable and the CE industry have already set to work on a bi-directional form of that agreement that would allow digital TVs to interact with the cable headend.

Staying with interactivity, Samsung in January became the latest consumer electronics company to sign CableLabs' POD-Host Interface License Agreement (PHILA), and the first to sign the two-way version of the license. Samsung plans to leverage PHILA to create both unidirectional and two-way digital cable products.

Samsung is the sixth manufacturer to sign the license, which provides access to Motorola Broadband's proprietary DFAST (Dynamic Feedback Arrangement Scrambling Technique) copy protection technology. The others are Motorola Broadband, Pace Micro Technology Americas, Panasonic, Pioneer Electronics and S-A.

Because there is a heavy retail component to OpenCable, CableLabs is actively discussing how labeling will be applied to equipment based on the spec. Those discussions stand apart from the cable/CE agreement.

"It's very complex because there are different kinds of [OpenCable] devices," Green says. "But there will be a sticker program, and there will be a way for customers to identify the capabilities of [TV] sets."

In addition to OpenCable hardware and interfaces, CableLabs is also figuring out how it will test for the platform's middleware–the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP). The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers approved OCAP as a standard last month, marking it as the Society's 100th. CableLabs, meanwhile, expects to begin OCAP compliance testing in the fourth quarter of 2003.

VOD specs

CableLabs and its members are also attempting to create common platforms and interfaces for video-on-demand, a service that is growing in complexity as new content–subscription, "free," or otherwise–is added to the mix.

In September, CableLabs released two new VOD specs designed to help operators deploy VOD services more rapidly. The first is the 1.1 version of the CableLabs VOD content specification, which covers items such as metadata formatting and video encoding thresholds. The new spec is a follow-up to the 1.0 VOD content spec, but adds components that enable content providers to make incremental changes to metadata or to fix metadata errors without having to retransmit the entire content package.

The other spec, the 1.1 version of CableLabs' Asset Distribution Interface (ADI), provides a unified method for how VOD assets such as movies are pitched and caught between the content aggregator and the cable operator's headend. The 1.0 version of the specification originally was tied to asset distribution via digital linear tape as the medium. The new 1.1 spec applies to faster, more sophisticated automated systems.

CableLabs is also working on a 2.0 VOD spec that involves an XML schema for metadata. That specification could be issued sometime this year.

Go2Broadband

While CableLabs projects such as DOCSIS and PacketCable steal much of the spotlight, the Go2Broadband initiative continues to gain importance as cable operators continue to broaden their presence at retail.

Initially used as a service locator for cable modem services, Go2Broadband is expected to add HDTV to the mix sometime in the first quarter of this year. The HD version will identify which cable markets offer high-definition content and/or digital services. Go2Broadband will further provide information tied to available service tiers and programming lineups as well as pricing information.

Top MSOs such as Comcast Corp., Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable have already committed to institute the HD version of G2B in the first quarter. In the meantime, the HSD iteration of G2B continues to rack up big numbers, logging 10.5 million visitors last year, according to CableLabs.

 

CableLabs to phase out YAS

CableLabs officials have confirmed plans to phase out YAS Broadband Ventures as a consultant on several cable access projects by the end of this year.

CableLabs said that its agreement with YAS all along was to phase out YAS as a consultant and eventually rely on CableLabs staff to handle those responsibilities. CableLabs officials said the decision to spark the migration was made in December 2002. The changeover is expected to conclude by the end of this year.

"We expect to elevate CableLabs [staff] into these roles," says CableLabs President and CEO Dr. Richard Green.

Though the transition plan is already being put in motion, the number of YAS positions CableLabs will fill with its own employees remains largely undetermined, Green says. About nine YAS employees are currently involved in CableLabs work, in roles ranging from leadership, engineering and administration.

YAS, led by cable pioneer and "father of the cable modem" Rouzbeh Yassini, is presently advising and consulting for CableLabs on several high-profile projects, including DOCSIS, CableHome and PacketCable.

Under the guidance of YAS, CableLabs' certification process has moved well past DOCSIS 1.0 and greenlighted dozens of devices for DOCSIS 1.1, and, for the first time, approved five cable modems and one cable modem termination system based on the third-generation DOCSIS 2.0 specification.

"CableLabs and the whole industry are indebted to Rouzbeh and YAS for the work they've done," Green says. Yassini "has accepted assignments from me to restructure the CableHome program, help with PacketCable to get certification [completed] and modify it to make it work better."

The migration will also allow YAS, which has financial stakes in a number of vendors with certification and qualification interests, to extricate itself from internal CableLabs processes and avoid potential or perceived conflicts of interest.

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