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One more time in Anaheim

Wed, 12/31/2003 - 7:00pm
CED staff

Showroom Floor
About 6,150 were on hand for
the final Western Show.
Ending an era that spanned 36 years, about 6,150 people registered for the final Western Show to learn about and see the technologies and advanced services that cable operators will have to bear in their ongoing battle with DBS and DSL service providers.

Despite the smaller crowd and much smaller show floor (just 150 exhibiting companies and 30,000 square feet, including CableNET, which will live on at this year's National Show in New Orleans), the final Western Show still showcased the technologies that will lead the industry in 2004 and beyond.

Although deal and product announcements ran the gamut, news about IP telephony, high-definition television and advanced digital video recorders rose to the surface, while the noise surrounding video-on-demand and interactive television was more muted than in recent years.

VoIP teed up for '04

Time might be up for The Western Show, but time appears to be of the essence for an aggressive foray into IP telephony by cable operators. Serving as the "tech buzz" at this show, IP telephony has been a service whose window for mass deployment and overall success has perpetually been "next year." It appears that 2004 might be the correct "next year" everyone has been pointing to all along.

No more apparent was this than at Sprint's booth, which showcased for operators a partnership package that combines IP voice, wireless and data services. Like other "turnkey" VoIP providers, Sprint hopes to team up with cable operators that want to get into the voice biz, but might not have the technical and financial wherewithal to go it alone. Among Sprint's offerings is a CLEC Service Bureau, which handles elements such as operator services, E911 and CALEA support, voice mail, call rating and local number portability.

Sprint was tight-lipped with the press and with analysts at the show when pressed for specific details about its cable plans, but the shroud was lifted the following week when it announced a VoIP partnership with Time Warner Cable. Following initial launches in Portland, Maine and Raleigh, N.C., the MSO will collaborate with Sprint and MCI on the introduction of VoIP services in several more markets in 2004. Time Warner Cable has also been approved to offer the service in N.Y., and has filings pending in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio and Texas.

Time Warner Cable expects to light up its entire footprint with VoIP during the course of 2004 and follow with "a really aggressive marketing push in 2005," company spokesman Mark Harrad says.

In addition to the very big MSOs, VoIP, thanks to companies like Vonage, is also leaving its mark on small- and mid-sized MSOs.

Vonage kept its cable partnership ball rolling at the show, signing "private label" agreements with CableAmerica, an MSO that serves north of 65,000 subs in Arizona, Missouri, California and Michigan, and with Microwave Satellite Technologies, which will tap Vonage to offer VoIP service to NuVision cable subscribers in New York City. The week following the Show, Vonage also signed on Mid-Hudson Cablevision, which will offer telephony services under its own brand in the New York counties of Columbia and Greene.

Also indicative at the show was that IP is not for voice alone. A number of vendors also demonstrated progress with their respective video-telephony plans. Cedar Point Communications, for example, showed off new capabilities that will enable its SAFARI C3 Media Switching System to provide video telephony applications. WorldGate also jumped into the act, announcing it had raised about $1.1 million to fuel the development of "Ojo," the company's forthcoming videophone product.

HD becomes en vogue

It was also clear that the cable industry is genuinely serious about HD as it continues to stay in lock step or even exceed offerings from DBS. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) used the show to share a member survey that revealed that HDTV service is now available from at least one operator in 96 of the top 100 U.S. markets, and 143 markets overall. According to NCTA figures, 70 million U.S. TV homes were passed by a cable system with HDTV capabilities as of Dec. 1, 2003, up 90 percent since the first of the year, when HDTV programming was available to about 37 million cable households.

But HDTV remains somewhat of a mystery for most consumers, who have to wade through aspect ratios and resolution standards before they can make an informed purchase. To help demystify some of those daunting consumer issues, INHD, InDemand's linear high-definition television network, stepped up with the launch of a new Web site (www.inhd.com/buyersguide) designed to educate consumers about HDTV and guide them through the sometimes-confusing technical jargon associated with it.

The site walks consumers through seven "steps" in the HDTV decision-making process, covering key elements such as aspect ratio, line resolution, pricing and the pros and cons of display types such as CRT, LCD and plasma. The site then outputs a list of five sets that best match the user's selections, generating that list from a database of 75 currently available HDTV sets.

To help networks get more out of their HDTV efforts, Terayon Communication Systems showed off how programmers can "brand" their high-def programming by cost-effectively overlaying corporate logos in HD programs and advertisements. At the heart of the demo was Terayon's new BP 5100 broadcast platform, a system that enables programmers to overlay their logos directly into digital programming. Those overlays, the company added, live completely in the digital domain sans the cost, complexity or picture degradation associated with traditional decoding and re-encoding methods. The BP 5100 is based on Terayon's Network CherryPicker line of digital streams management systems.

The last Western Show was also home to the first deployable cable set-top with both HD and digital video recording capabilities. Scientific-Atlanta, beating other vendors to the punch, formally unveiled the Explorer 8000HD. Time Warner Cable was the first to deploy the dual-tuner HDDVR, announcing it is offering the box to customers in Green Bay, Wis.

S-A's Explorer 8000HD demo
Scientific-Atlanta’s Dave Clark demos
the Explorer 8000HD.
Taking a glimpse into the not-so-distant future, Scientific-Atlanta also showcased a similar application/system under the internal, working name of the Explorer 8300 Multi-Room. Taking a digital, "mini-headend" approach, the home media server houses a QAM modulator, two tuners and enough playback capability to support four total sessions. S-A has the system in the lab today, and expects to begin field trials in early 2004. It should go commercial by next summer. But it will take some extra know-how to make it all work properly. Operators will have to install a filter module to ensure that signals don't leak out onto the larger network.

Off the floor, Ucentric Systems showed off its slick system, demonstrating how home networking and an intuitive user interface can be used to share video and music between a mother ship and ultra-thin set-top clients.

VOD, iTV more muted

News surrounding video-on-demand and interactive television was a bit more muted, marked by fewer "big" announcements.

Still, there was some deployment news. Mediacom Communications became the second cable MSO to announce deals with all of the "Big Three" video-on-demand (VOD) vendors in awarding new deployments to nCUBE Corp. Mediacom said it would deploy nCUBE's "nABLE" software and "n4x" video servers to support VOD services in Gulf Breeze, Fla.; and in Albany, Columbus and Fitzgerald, Ga., by the end of 2003. The deployments make up about one-third of the MSO's total "VOD-enabled" subscribers, the company said. Mediacom presently serves about 1.55 million basic subs in 23 states. Mediacom also uses VOD gear and software from Concurrent Computer Corp. in Des Moines, Iowa and Mobile, Ala. SeaChange International is Mediacom's primary VOD vendor in the Quad Cities (Illinois) region. Time Warner Cable, depending on the system, also uses video-on-demand gear from Concurrent, SeaChange and nCUBE–considered the "Big Three" vendors in the sector.

Buckeye CableSystem of Ohio, meanwhile, announced it had tapped TVN Entertainment Corp. as its exclusive provider of video-on-demand programming. Buckeye expects to roll out VOD this month, initially offering a library of new release movies, kids programs and adult titles. The operator will later add subscription-VOD content from HBO, Showtime and Starz!

Bill Smart & Matthew Aden
Remember when signing deals on the Western Show floor was a common occurrence? The “Way Back Machine”
was in operation at the final show, when Comcast VP of Purchasing Bill Smart
(left) presented Motorola SVP and GM/Worldwide Sales Matthew Aden with a purchase order for 5,000 advanced digital set-tops for the MSO’s Detroit system.
On the integration front, N2 Broadband said it secured the all-important validation from Motorola Broadband's Acadia lab for its "OpenStream" VOD back office platform. The validation is important because the majority of N2's VOD back office deployments to date have been on the Scientific-Atlanta digital platform. Gaining Acadia validation from Motorola's Horizon Developer Program could open up more than half of the U.S. digital cable market to N2. Horizon also tests set-top software applications ranging from interactive program guides and digital video recording to games and targeted advertising.

Launched in February 2003, OpenStream uses published interfaces that link components of a VOD system, enabling operators to choose from several video server vendors and pre-integrated applications.

N2 Broadband also completed its integration with Gotuit Media's patented indexing technology for on-demand video content. The combined platform, which is currently being trialed by a "major" MSO and expected to be commercially available in the first quarter of this year, enables cable operators to index on-demand content with metadata. The result allows consumers to quickly access the parts of a show in which they are the most interested, and interactively "surf" through stored content using a standard remote control. For example, when watching a time-shifted sporting event, consumers can segment the game into different views–game highlights, favorite player highlights, key plays–without having to watch the game in its entirety.

As for content developments, ESPN, already a key VOD and HDTV player, announced it would combine the two in a new programming package for cable operators. ESPN initially will offer one HD college football and basketball game to affiliates for on-demand distribution. ESPN said its HDVOD library will expand as more events and programs are produced in hi-def.

HDVOD is still an extremely young service in the cable realm. Some operators have noted that the costs involved in offering HDVOD titles are up to five times higher than their standard-definition cousins. But that hasn't stopped a few operators from moving forward with it. Cablevision Systems Corp. last summer became the first MSO to launch such a tier. Time Warner Cable is also among the early movers into HDVOD.

On the iTV front, ICTV released HeadendWare 3.0, a platform that touts improved system scalability, customizable user interface controls, and new tools that will allow content developers to deliver more "TV-friendly" content for the system. The upgraded platform can also support up to 60 percent more user sessions per system, the company claims.

Bandwidth management

Both product and operational announcements hit the burgeoning bandwidth management sector.

On the business side, Arris inked a non-exclusive agreement to distribute and sell Ellacoya Networks' bandwidth management platforms to cable operators worldwide.

Ellacoya's IP service management software/hardware combination enables broadband operators to peer deep into their high-speed data networks, giving them the tools to measure, analyze and manage traffic by application and service, including IP-based video, voice and broadband gaming. Ellacoya's system consists of its 4000- and 16000-series IP switches, which are tied together by the company's Service Logic Software, a central point for configuration, policy distribution and integration with other back office systems.

For Ellacoya, a closely held startup based in Merrimack, N.H., the agreement will give it access to Arris' worldwide sales and support channel. Arris has already installed Ellacoya's bandwidth control platform with "several" unnamed North and South American cable operators, the companies said.

Allot Communications, meanwhile, won a deployment deal with Northland Cable Television, which will use the vendor's gear to manage bandwidth for the MSO's 80 headend sites in states such as Alabama, California, Georgia, Idaho, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Texas and Washington.

Excessive peer-to-peer traffic coursing Northland's networks, particularly in markets serving multiple universities, was affecting Northland's network performance. With Allot's NetEnforcer management system, the MSO said it can now manage P2P traffic and effectively limit aggregate peak bandwidth usage in particular areas.

P-Cube Inc. rounded things out with the launch of Engage 2.0, a platform that enables operators to optimize network traffic usage and develop new broadband services. The new version supports new peer-to-peer protocols such as Bittorrent and DirectConnect and VoIP applications and protocols such as SIP and Skype.

Provisioning and OSS

The show was also marked by waves of activity in the ever-consolidating OSS and provisioning sector.

In a full-circle move, the former executives of broadband OSS software provider Sigma Systems announced it had re-acquired the company from Liberate Technologies, which had purchased Sigma back in July 2001. The acquisition includes the division formerly known as Liberate Technologies (Toronto), based in Canada.

Lemur Networks, meanwhile, scored its first announced deployment. Adams Cable Service agreed to install Lemur's iFabric Firmware Manager in systems serving 25,000 subs in New York and Pennsylvania. The software enables Adams to discover and upgrade DOCSIS 1.0 modems without costly truck rolls. Utilizing Lemur's configurable parser technology, cable operators can discern previously unrecognized

DOCSIS and EuroDOCSIS modem types and configure the Firmware Manager to effect upgrades of these devices, Lemur said.

"Lemur's i-Fabric FM allows us to track installed cable modems and remotely perform firmware upgrades," said Brian Muha, director of technology for Adams Cable Service. "These upgrades allow us to take advantage of DOCSIS 1.1 features such as Quality of Service (QoS) and bandwidth shaping, to control how much bandwidth is available per-subscriber at any given time."

Auspice also made waves on the deployment front, announcing that Cox Communications is rolling out a "cross-service" cable operations automation system based on Version 4.0 of the vendor's TLX Real-Time Systems Integration and Operations Automation Platform.

Auspice's platform automates the steps that detect and correlate HFC (hybrid fiber/coax) plant outages across multiple service lines–high-speed data, telephony and video–and assist in identifying the cause and total scope of outages. In addition, the system automatically creates a performance score for each physical HFC network region (e.g., by node), prioritizes them to identify the most severe issues and generates maintenance tickets.

To develop the solution, Auspice's engineering team collaborated with Cox's engineering staff onsite at the latter's Atlanta offices.

Also in deployments, Sigecom, a broadband service provider based in Evansville, Ind., said it launched Telution Inc.'s COMX OSS platform to help it tie together support for its subscriber management and billing software systems for voice, data and video services. Sigecom said the platform will help it activate multiple service bundles more quickly. With the COMX software suite, "we are finally able to provide higher levels of satisfaction through service bundling," said David Smith, Sigecom's president and general manager, in a statement.

In products, Incognito Software debuted its Broadband Command Center, an integrated high-speed data and VoIP device provisioning suite for broadband operators. With it, MSOs can use a single device-provisioning platform that expands to deliver new services. In addition, the platform has proven integration with existing middleware and OSS systems, the company said. It's also been integrated into Motorola Broadband's Advanced Provisioning System. Incognito's Broadband Command Center is currently in customer trials.

ADC also unveiled Version 4.2 of its FastFlow Broadband Provisioning Manager (BPM), which adds advancements for highly secure, standards-based PacketCable and CableHome device provisioning, along with increased security for upgrading firmware in cable modems, multimedia terminal adapters and CableHome residential gateways. ADC also disclosed that Cox Communications is currently deploying FastFlow BPM for PacketCable media terminal adapter (MTA) provisioning in a Virginia trial.

OSS firm Core Networks, meanwhile, bowed CoreEnsemble, a home network management platform for cable broadband environments. Designed to provide monitoring and management over CableHome-based residential gateways, CoreEnsemble can broaden the number and variety of services MSOs can make available to their customers, the company said. For example, CoreEnsemble has the capability to manage and handle elements such as firewall security, parental controls, high-speed access and video telephony.

"While providing their home- or small-office-based cable subscribers with a higher quality of service, MSOs will benefit from increased revenue opportunities and reduced maintenance and support costs," said Core CEO Craig Soderquist.

On the partnership front, CSG Systems and Interactive Enterprise announced the completion of an integration pact that combines CSG's billing and customer care platform with IE's Conexon cable service activation system. The combo will provide provisioning and service activation capabilities for bundled voice, video and data services, the companies said. The pre-integration applies to CSG's Kenan FX framework for mobile, wireline, broadband and IP service providers and its ICMS customer care products.

Other deals and deployments

Not to leave broadband transport out of the picture at Western, Oceanic Time Warner, the Hawaii Division of Time Warner Cable, said it had purchased Optinel Systems' PLEXiS MFX transport platform, which will be deployed on the island of Oahu. The deployment is the fifth large-scale commercial installation of the PLEXiS solution, with several more currently underway, according to Optinel.

The PLEXiS system can support a few to more than 80,000 video streams per fiber over distances of greater than 500 km.

Key to the deployment is Optinel's optical Gigabit Ethernet solution. Available in multiple transceiver, transmitter and receiver formats, the suite of products provides 1 Gbps, 2.5 Gbps or 10 Gbps of uni- or bi-directional capacity per wavelength.

Lightpath, the business telecommunications services division of Cablevision Systems Corp., has deployed a dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) metro optical transport platform from Nortel Networks to deliver next-generation broadband services.

Lightpath, the third-largest local exchange carrier in New York State, is using Nortel's OPTera Metro 5200 Multiservice Platform to evolve its existing Sonet-based backbone to deliver metro Ethernet, storage area networking, Gigabit Ethernet, managed services, and other services.

"Implementing Nortel Networks optical solutions provides a scalable network infrastructure that enables us to increase network capacity and efficiency, lower operating costs, and maximize our capital resources to add new, revenue-generating services as the market demands them," said Brian Fabiano, senior vice president of Network Services at Lightpath.

Lightpath provides voice, data and Internet communications services to the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut business market. In 2002, it reported revenues in excess of $160 million, more than 140,000 access lines and 18,000 Internet circuits.

 

The last room drop

It wasn't all that long ago when you had to bring along an empty suitcase to tote home all of the schwag that would be waiting for you in your hotel room each night at the show. My, how things have changed, as room-drops dwindled in quantity and quality. But that didn't dampen the spirits of ICTV Inc., purveyor of what became the final room-drop of the Western Show era: a neon-green water gun.

–Jeff Baumgartner

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