Sweat, Blood and Broadband
Take your seats ringside, and welcome to the fourth edition of CED's Broadband 50, our list of the broadband champs and top contenders—the companies, technologies and people who we think have shaped and influenced the broadband sector in 2004, and those who are challenging to do so in 2005.
In a new twist this year, each item on the list is accompanied by a +/- marker to tell you how many spots a particular company or technology rose or dropped in the rankings since we went through this process a mere 12 months ago. The NEW icon will tell you if a particular item is new to the list.
Back again is Area 51 (see p. 41–42), a place reserved for those just on the cusp of greatness or still in the "alien technology" category.
As in years past, the 2005 installment was assembled (and championed by) the editors of CED. If you think we missed the mark on something, just drop us a line and we'll be sure to share your thoughts in an upcoming issue.
#1 Comcast Corp.
Still No. 1
On the content side, Comcast recovered from its failed bid to buy Disney by joining Sony Corp. in a coalition that bought Metro Goldwyn Mayer for $2.9 billion. For its reported $300 million investment, it gained access to Sony and MGM's combined video libraries, potentially boosting its VOD offerings from 1,500 to more than 10,000 hours of programming.
2004 also saw Comcast roll out video-on demand to about 80 percent of its markets, and it supplied about 200,000 HD set-tops to customers in the third quarter, the latter backed by a growing lineup of local and network HD programming.
Comcast's high-speed data business saw a record third quarter, pulling in a whopping 549,000 customers—the highest new sub count ever posted for the MSO. It also is making its presence known in various home networking technologies, backing the Multimedia over Cable Alliance (MoCA) as well as joining the board of the HomePlug powerline networking group. And it has reunited its cable telephony plans, with Voice-over-IP trials under way in at least three markets. —Karen Brown
#2 Time Warner Cable
Everything across the board
Last year, we wrote about how the company was aggressively rolling out VOD across all its divisions, complete with high-definition content and, in many cases, with digital video recorders as well.
We also alerted everyone to TWC's impending massive rollout of VoIP, perhaps a key linchpin to the long-awaited foray into voice services by cable operators.
Now, the rollout has begun. And true to Time Warner's "across the board" strategy, the service is slated to appear in every division the company has.
Not to be left behind, the company has kept pace with others in the high-speed data tiering world, having upped the speed of its RoadRunner service.
And finally, the company threw its weight behind OCAP when it announced it was working with Comcast to develop the middleware through an organization called OCAP Development LLC. —Roger Brown
#3 EchoStar Communications Corp.
Dishing out competition
The Dish Network's popularity is reflected in the annual J.D. Power and Associates annual Residential Cable/Satellite TV Customer Satisfaction Study, which this year put EchoStar at the top of the provider heap.
And it continues to cozy up to telco providers eager to add video to their cable-competitive bundles. Although it dropped plans to partner with flawed Qwest Communications International, it has maintained a healthy partnership with SBC Communications Inc. and CenturyTel, and most recently added Pennsylvania's deal with Commonwealth Telephone Enterprises Inc. to the list. —KB
Fiber's big dog
Video on deck
If Verizon (see #5) is the telecom bellwether, SBC can't be far behind. This RBOC is a formidable force, and can define markets all by itself—which is a scary thought, now that the company is beginning to shed some light on its broadband strategy.
The key part of that strategy is Project Lightspeed, its multi-billion dollar fiber network development, over which it plans to launch an IP television service in late 2005, according to company executives.
The company's accelerated deployment plan for the fiber network calls for reaching 18 million households (or roughly half its serviceable homes) by 2007, with capital expenditures projected to be $4 billion. SBC execs said that the company intends to become the second-largest video provider in its fiber footprint within the next five years by capturing 20 percent marketshare. How's that for ambition?
And SBC is banking on huge returns. Video alone is expected to generate at least $550 million annually, and the company intends to garner a 50 percent data market share, with revenues increasing by nearly $300 million in 2007. —RB
# 4 News Corp.
Rupert's Death Star, redux?
#7 Cox Communications
Pretty good privacy
Next, we'll be keeping our eyes on Cox's interactive television plans, led by its interest in the so-called OnRamp to OCAP, a middleware platform for legacy, pre-OCAP digital boxes.
We can only hope that the company will choose to be as sharing in the future with the press and its cable colleagues, as it certainly has been in the past to the benefit of all parties. —JB
#8 Scientific-Atlanta Inc.
The overlay play
S-A is also doing what it can to make people forget about Sony Passage as an option for a second conditional access (CA) system.
With "overlay," S-A has created a way for cable operators to deploy Explorer set-tops, including those outfitted with digital video recording and high-definition capabilities, on cable systems originally based on Motorola's CA or anyone else's CA, for that matter.
At press time, Time Warner Cable was the only MSO to announce overlay deployments, but it's clear that other operators are interested in the technology, as well.
S-A is also a strong player on the transport network—either through in-house innovation or via partnerships. On the commercial services end, its BroadLAN platform will also enable cable operators to run lucrative T-1 services over their HFC plant.
So, what's next? S-A has opted to stay on the leading technology edge by investing in and partnering with other vendors. But we wouldn't be surprised to see S-A take a cue from C-COR Inc. and go an on acquisition binge of its own to fill any holes in its technology portfolio. —JB
#9 Motorola Inc.
Cable, telco, wireless, whatever
This year, Motorola took a significant step toward supporting all-digital with the introduction of the DCT-700, a sub-$100 box that sports only a digital tuner. Canadian cablers, including Cogeco, have latched onto the box, and other MSOs are considering it as a possible means to support future all-digital programming packages.
An upswing in digital set-tops also supported a 31 percent jump in third-quarter revenue for Motorola Broadband, which shipped 400,000 HTDV set-tops and just shy of 200,000 HD DVR boxes.
It also is active on the telco TV front, most notably inking a deal with Verizon Inc. in November to supply headend equipment and digital set-tops. After buying Quantum Bridge, Motorola also is keeping its finger firmly on FTTP's pulse.
On the data side, Motorola also maintains a healthy lead in cable modems and embedded multimedia terminal adapters. It also is distributing the Ojo video telephone for WorldGate Communications.
And let's not forget Motorola's other "little" side business in cellular telephones. Motorola has created a Seamless Mobility Initiative that bears watching, as it mixes wireless with Wi-Fi and wired systems that could open a new wireless service option for cable operators. —KB
#10 Liberty Media
What the @&$# is Dr. Malone up to now?
After an acquisition spree, it now holds a significant interactive TV presence in OpenTV, and that gained even more oomph with the addition of former Time Warner Cable and MystroTV maestro Jim Chiddix as its chairman and CEO. This year OpenTV inked major deals with Motorola Inc. and Sky Italia, and it settled a tiff with Disney Corp. inherited from its ACTV acquisition, including a licensing arrangement with the movie and entertainment outlet.
Liberty also was busy refining its holdings, starting with the January acquisition of a 9.15 percent voting interest in News Corp. In November it initiated a bid to increase that stake to 17 percent, prompting rumors Liberty would seek a hostile takeover.
In July it swapped assets with Comcast, buying back 120.3 million shares of its common stock from the MSO in exchange for shares it held in Encore ICPP Inc., which oversees E! Entertainment Television, International Channel Networks and TCI Music assets.
Elsewhere in programming, Liberty's stakes in Starz Encore Group LLC and Discovery Networks continue to bear fruit.
The breadth of its international holdings now concentrated in spinoff Liberty Media International is also impressive, ranging from Japanese broadband provider Jupiter Telecommunication Co. Ltd. to Telewest Communications in the United Kingdom and satellite operator UnitedGlobalCom. —KB
#11 Cisco Systems Inc.
Belly up to the bar?
Even as consolidation has hit the cable modem termination system unit market, Cisco has maintained its top market share position with its UBR series chassis. Earlier this year it also introduced a new Quadrature Amplitude Modulator product that converts Gigabit Ethernet signals to radio frequency in video-on-demand delivery systems.
Its acquisition of Linksys has reinstated Cisco's previously mothballed subscriber side equipment play. This summer Linksys landed a marketing partnership with Comcast Corp. to offer the Linksys Wireless-G cable gateway.
Given that strong base in IP, look for Cisco also to play a significant role in voice-over-IP deployments.
And there are signs Cisco's appetite for acquisition is reviving. In August it extended its presence in the IP bandwidth management arena by snapping up applications traffic monitoring outlet P-Cube Inc. for $200 million. —KB
#12 C-COR Inc.
Remember when C-COR was the quiet, conservative, steady little RF amplifier manufacturer based in bucolic State College, Pa.?
Well, all that's changed—except for the State College part. The company's still too quiet, but we're betting that's about to change as it embarks on a new marketing campaign that's designed to show how it's redefining itself in these turbulent times.
Gone is the old "dot-net" moniker that seemed so relevant in the dot-com era. In its place has come a heavy emphasis on software and services, mirroring the evolution of the broadband build-out from a hardware focus to one based on service, content and support. But the company hasn't lost sight of growth prospects, either.
The acquisitions of Alopa and Stargus add to the software portfolio, while grabbing up Lantern Communications and Optinel Systems give it additional network transport products. And the most recent purchase of nCUBE promises to transform the company into an on-demand player.
No, it's not the Goliath that Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta are, but who's to say that another acquisition won't get the company closer to that status? CEO Dave Woodle and CTO Ken Wright deserve kudos for having the guts to take calculated risks. —RB
#13 Microsoft Corp.
Is its iTV strategy finally ready to fly?
Microsoft also has been trying to increase its presence in cable with the introduction of its Foundation Edition interactive programming guide, and it got a big boost there when the platform/IPG landed its first commercial rollout with Comcast, no less. The MSO, which has purchased 5 million Foundation licenses, is now rolling out Microsoft's software to customers in Washington state.
The software giant also is looking to dovetail that technology into the OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP), submitting in May a draft of a common language infrastructure that would link its .NET interactive software platform into the OCAP specification.
While it still hasn't yet gained the traction it seeks for its interactive TV products among cable operators, Microsoft's IPTV products seem to be faring somewhat better among some telcos, including SBC Communications. It recently provided details on a new IP broadband digital box dubbed MSN TV 2 Internet & Media Player, a device able to store and play digital music, videos and photos from Internet or PC hard drive sources. That could effectively open the door to Internet-based TV services to bypass traditional cable TV.
Broadband gaming also plays into the picture, with Microsoft's Xbox platform, which is seeking to build a high-speed online gaming community through Xbox Live. —KB
#14 Harmonic Inc.
Covering its IP bases
The advent of the HD craze among cable and satellite programmers has meant good business for Harmonic and the line of video encoders it acquired when it bought up DiviCom. It's also in the thick of the all-digital trend, supplying encoders and statistical multiplexing gear for Charter Communications' Long Beach, Calif. rollout. It also provided Canadian cabler Videotron encoders and network elements to convert the MSO's cable and off-air video programming entirely to digital format.
On the optical networking side, Time Warner Cable is using Harmonic's coarse wave division multiplexing technology to offer as much as 100 Megabytes per second throughput to Houston-area enterprise customers. Cox opted for Harmonic's Narrowcast Services Gateway product to pump up its VOD services in certain markets, and in May Harmonic introduced its GIGALight GTA 9100 Digital Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing transmission system that can support 40 wavelengths per fiber with each wavelength delivering 10 Gigabits per second. —KB
Dialing for VoIP dollars
2004 saw ARRIS gain ground in the cable modem access gear market with its embedded media terminal adapter units. During the third quarter, ARRIS boosted sales of its Touchstone VoIP eMTA product to 174,000 units, compared to just 10,000 in the first quarter. Knology Inc. was among the operators tapping the Touchstone for a deployment passing 272,000 homes in Pinellas County, Fla.
ARRIS also debuted its new Q5 digital multimedia termination system this year. The chassis combines CMTS functions with video transport and multiplexing capabilities, with the ability to ride herd on digital video broadcast, VOD, IP multicast, IP unicast and DOCSIS data traffic.
It also is active on the fixed wireless side through its subsidiary, ARRIS Telewire Supply. In June it announced a partnership with Arcwave to resell its fixed-wireless DOCSIS products to cable operators wanting a last-mile wireless connection for commercial data services. ARRIS has a similar wireless data technology partnership with VCom Inc. —KB
#16 SeaChange International
Still #1 in VOD
Though SeaChange is starting to use the "open" word in its business communications, we're still waiting to see the company announce its first integration deal with a third-party server supplier. nCUBE Corp. (soon to become part of C-COR Inc.) has apparently seen the writing on the wall and has taken that path already. Time will tell if SeaChange (and Concurrent Computer Corp. for that matter) will follow suit with all of those next-gen video pumps that are infiltrating the marketplace.
But that's not to say that SeaChange is not ahead of the curve in other areas. Its VODlink software is a prime example of how intuitive navigation, branding and flashy graphics can be used in the VOD environment. SeaChange is also fully aware that on-demand now means more than video. One example of this foresight is SeaChange's partnership with Softbank Broadmedia Group (see photo above) to deliver games via the MediaCluster platform. —JB
#17 Commercial services
Cable's getting down to business
The phenomenon is likely driven by the need to satisfy Wall Street demands to show revenue growth through new services and the rise of voice-over-IP as a viable technology platform. With many businesses now located in suburban areas where cable networks are within reach, operators armed with VoIP can now legitimately attract enterprise customers and their potentially higher monthly average revenue per user.
Cox Communications Inc. has long carried the banner for enterprising cable operators. In May, Time Warner Cable launched two new Road Runner broadband offerings. In June, Comcast Interactive Capital bought into an $8 million funding round for Arcwave, a startup whose technology extends high-speed DOCSIS channels wirelessly to SMBs. —KB
#18 The SIP guys
VoIP's wild trip takes a SIP
Cable's been noodling VoIP for several years, but it's just now starting to be deployed in earnest. SIP-based providers, meanwhile, have taken the early advantage with offerings that ride on top of high-speed connections and are benefiting from a light touch from federal regulators. When acronyms start to show up in mainstream pubs like "The New York Times" on a regular basis, you know that it has arrived, ready or not.
Vonage used to be the big dog in this category, but it's being challenged by a raft of competitors, including "name" companies such as AT&T and Verizon, and innovative PC software client/services like Skype.
But being first doesn't always ensure longevity. As the SIP customer base grows, expect more and more public fallout from its lack of QoS and backup power. At that point, cable will do well to step in with a PacketCable-SIP proxy combo that answers those pesky technological questions. —JB
#19 N2 Broadband
Hangin' 10 on VOD's 'open' wave
We first wrote about the virtues and potential of an "open" video-on-demand system that enables operators to decouple the server from the back office back in 2002. These days, the stuff N2 was talking about two years ago is starting to look downright prophetic. Led by Time Warner Cable and more recently Charter Communications, the idea has certainly caught on. N2 appears to be in the right place to ride that wave as operators start to look at the latest and greatest servers available on the market. Now, it's on to the telcos. —JB
#20 Going mostly digital
Simulcast today, migration tomorrow
And this year a handful actually took the plunge. Charter Communications was the first U.S. operator, firing up simulcast all-digital service in its Long Beach, Calif. system in July after six months of testing. All-digital activity has been even stronger north of the border, where a cadre of Canadian operators have made similar moves. Cogeco, Rogers Cable and Mountain Cable have all rolled out service, while Shaw is planning to do so by the end of this year.
The move to all-digital also gained a big boost when Motorola Inc. rolled out its sub-$100, digital-only DCT-700 this year. That may well be a first step in creating a super-low digital set-top cablers could use to lure economy-minded analog customers into the digital era.
But for now the digital move is actually an added bandwidth burden because analog does not go away. Instead, the operators have opted for a simulcast scheme, duplicating all of the analog channels in digital while continuing to offer analog service.
In 2005, we expect more MSOs to join the all- or mostly-digital club, so stay tuned. —KB
This wolf has teeth
That's probably because the nation's massive telcos are stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. Their wireline business is eroding as people switch to cellphones, take up broadband (eliminating second lines) and do less faxing—so they have to do something.
Verizon alone has committed to passing 1 million homes in 2004 after launching the service in Keller, Texas and parts of California and Florida. The company even accelerated its schedule once new rules emanated from the FCC that allow it to build the network and not sell it for wholesale prices to competitors.
SBC is taking a slightly less aggressive approach, using a fiber-to-the-node architecture that will eventually pass at least 18 million households. The state of Utah, meanwhile, has two high-profile FTTP projects of its own: UTOPIA and iProvo.
Finally, hardware costs have finally reached parity with copper and the service providers are highly motivated as competition has heated up. With cable operators aggressively going after the voice business, the telcos are finally making strides to offer their own suite of services.
Poised to help are legions of equipment suppliers, who have smelled blood and are circling around the RBOCs, looking for business. Kinda reminds you of 1997–2000, doesn't it? —RB
#22 Rogers Communications
Peek at cable's future today?
Not only does it run Canada's largest cable TV business in Rogers Cable Inc., but it also owns and operates its own GSM wireless telephone service in Rogers Wireless Communications Inc. And it owns a phalanx of radio and TV broadcasting outlets through Rogers Media Inc.
2004 saw Rogers Cable roll out all-digital service, as well as HD DVR service. It also announced plans to light a multimedia IP network to support services including wireline voice in 2005.
On the data side, Rogers announced a premium residential cable modem service delivering a whopping 5 Megabits per second throughput and an expanded content and services package with partner Yahoo! Inc. At the same time it also rolled out a low-cost cable modem service priced to lure dial-up customers and save price-sensitive data subs.
Rogers' wireless play got even stronger in November, when the company announced it would acquire fellow provider Microcell Telecommunications Inc., making it the largest cellular carrier in Canada. Given the recent steps taken toward a combined wireless-wireline voice service, that could prove a key asset for the company.
Roger that. —KB
#23 Bell Canada
What an organized telco can do
How bad is it? Our friends to the north like to quip that what U.S. cable people fear, Canadian cable people are living. It's the kind of thing U.S. cable operators fervently hope won't be emulated down here.
Cable, down here, is reported to be in talks to partner, or buy, a cellular operator. Reasoning: Adding wireless to voice-over-IP is a build or buy proposition. If it's a buy, the next steps are to align, pick a partner, proceed.
The tastiest prospects, for obvious reasons, are those not owned by an independent local exchange carrier (ILEC). That leads to the doors of T-Mobile, Nextel or Sprint. At press time, nobody was talking, and press reports (like the "sources said" "Wall Street Journal" piece on November 8) were dissed as speculative.
Here's some speculation from the north: U.S. operators who want a quadruple play better start thinking without wires, and "through the silos." That means anticipating a range of devices—mobile, portable, wired, and wireless—and the range of voice, video and data services that could run on them.
As if you didn't have anything else to do (ahem). —Leslie Ellis
#24 TI and Broadcom
Who's David and who's Goliath?
In October, TI announced a new voice-over IP architecture that boils down hardware and software onto a single-chip design. Not to be outdone, Broadcom in the same month came out with a chip that dovetails VoIP and Wi-Fi, potentially supporting voice services tapping a wireless home network.
So far, the battle between the two has been something of a mismatch, with Broadcom holding the definite advantage in cable system chip volume. But with the retirement of Broadcom CEO and guiding hand Henry Nicholas and a major reorganization, the competitive cable balance could potentially shift. —KB
#25 Charter Communications
All-digital to the fore
After all, it is the first American cabler to roll out all-digital TV service, testing the technology in January and formally rolling out live service in July in its Long Beach, Calif. division. The simulcast service, which replicates the analog channels in digital, could well be a model for other cable operators looking to add an all-digital service.
Charter also is among the first to book a trip on Sony's Passage technology, testing the multiple conditional access scheme. Thanks to its corporate ties to Digeo Inc., Charter's also a pioneer in the interactive television category, which could serve it well in 2005 as iTV competition really heats up.
Innovation also is evident in Charter's data offerings. It was among the first to offer tiered data services, and recently it has retooled the tiers to aim at high and low-end users. —KB
#26 BigBand Networks
Expanding the IP menu
But it upped its presence in the cable space in May when it acquired the Cuda cable modem termination system and FastFlow provisioning assets from ADC Telecommunications Inc. That effectively expanded BigBand's reach beyond video systems into data and backoffice applications.
With converged IP services looming on the cable horizon, BigBand is looking to meld its BMR video delivery chassis with the Cuda CMTS, potentially creating an uber-CMTS.
On the switched broadcast front, it has joined forces with Pioneer Digital Technologies Inc. to offer a service based on the technology, which delivers only the channel streams customers tap rather than the full spectrum. Cable operators have been eying the technology to increase bandwidth in the last-mile of their networks while expanding their channel lineups. —KB
Playing the Plug & Play card
That patience will pay dividends in the two-way era of Plug & Play, as operators remember who put their necks (and some cash) on the line to create set-top-free digital displays.
But how will cable repay this debt of gratitude? It just so happens that Panasonic is also a player in the set-top game. Funny how that happens. —JB
#28 Nortel Networks
Calling on someone you can trust
And very few companies have the telephony pedigree of a Nortel Networks. That has helped Nortel dial up some solid business with MSOs such as Charter Communications. In addition to providing softswitches, gateways and VoIP expertise, expect Nortel to also join the mix as PacketCable Multimedia gets off the ground.
On the business/data front, Nortel is also factoring in with some wireless DOCSIS extension gear, an area largely dominated by smaller companies or outright startups. —JB
Friend or fiend?
Just look at the state of Utah alone—Kasenna Inc. recently supplied the gear for an IPTV service rolled out by All West Communications in Kamas, Utah. A fiber-to-the home initiative backed by The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency will use an IP DVR box supplied by Amino Communications as it rolls out service to 14 cities, starting with rollout to 50,000 customers in Salt Lake City. And the city of Provo's iProvo municipal FTTH project is also headed in that direction, with its HomeNet service run under contract by Video Internet Broadcasting, offering a full lineup of TV programming to city customers. —RB
#29 Cedar Point Communications
What will success reap?
In its biggest coup yet for an up-and-coming VoIP vendor, Comcast announced earlier this year that it would use Cedar Point's SAFARI C3 platform in some markets to support the MSO's ambitious VoIP plans.
But Cedar Point's success has also led to speculation that the company is now a coveted acquisition target. Will another vendor step up with the right price, or will Cedar Point seek its fortunes as a publicly-traded company? We'll likely know by this time next year. —JB
New speak for 'conditional access'
Nah, say cable technologists working on the matter. Don't think of it as "digital rights management," they say. Think of it this way: The conditional access and encryption systems already inside digital set-tops are DRM. Sort of.
That makes DRM less of a whole new thing, and more of an extension to a known and existing category. (Whew.)
With conditional access, people can "access" the device (set-top) or service (premium channel) on the "condition" that they pay for it. Once that hurdle is crossed, premium content is encrypted for transit. Happens every day.
DRM isn't all that different. On the condition that a third-party device (say, a portable video player) is "trustworthy," its owner can use it to access digital content. Ditto for making that content safe (encrypting it) for the ride over the connector.
DRM, as a category, will show up in cable systems in two ways. First is multi-room DVRs, which connect various leased cable boxes for the secure exchange of digital content. That's where you're watching "CSI" in the living room, get sleepy, pause it, crawl into bed, resume playing, and fall asleep before it's over.
If what you were watching before you conked out had been a scrambled channel, its owners probably want assurances that you didn't "move" it to a non-secure device. That's why this whole category of "trusted devices" is increasingly known as "assured service domains."
The second play is the connecting-up of third-party devices, such as CE or PC-side gadgets, to accept video downloads. Doing so will require "domain bridging"—like, from a secure cable domain to the needs-to-be-secure third party domain.
That one will likely be a little more tricky—it admits a few more cooks into an already crowded DRM kitchen. —LE
#32 In-house IPGs
Controlling the iTV portal
Not to pooh-pooh the efforts of the other IPG vendors, but the operators, especially the larger ones, are opting to grab more control of their IPG fates, knowing that it will serve as the window to a swath of interactive applications.
But can you blame them? With more control of the IPG, the operators, not the vendor, will determine which features go away or stay in. The operators will also be in the driver's seat when it comes to development and deployment timelines, which is key as iTV and the ability to rapidly deploy interactive applications grows in importance.
So far, Time Warner Cable appears to be the strongest case for this trend, having absorbed MystroTV and now on its way to deploying a range of IPGs and digital navigator products. Comcast, meanwhile, has partnered with Gemstar-TV Guide to create an IPG combo called GuideWorks, but will also deploy guide products from Microsoft TV. —JB
Lending a helpful hand
In particular, Sprint has been actively marketing itself to the operators, pulling down deals not only with Time Warner but also with Charter Communications, Mediacom Communications and Sunflower Broadband. In earnings calls, the telco and wireless provider has specifically emphasized growing its relationships with cable operators going forward. —KB
#34 Cable's 'Red Button'
Press Red. Haven't seen it? You will.
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch's video empire creeps closer with a plan that's flush with—dare we say it? "Interactive TV." In October, DirecTV executives told a gathering of Wall Street analysts to expect an NFL 2005 season package stocked with interactive elements, which customers can evoke with a press of a button. That means multiple camera angles, replays, and fantasy football stuff.
Cable-wise, OCAP is the answer, everyone says. Except that it isn't ready for primetime, and even when it is, it'll be hard to get it to work on legacy boxes.
What if "press red" crosses the ocean, with the 2005 NFL season a mere appetizer? iTV loyalists hope it makes state-side cable providers see red enough to get busy on a back atchya.
Can cable have a "red button"? (Or a "blue button," to go the Coke v. Pepsi route?) It's looking that way. There's OCAP, of course, for going-forward set-tops. And now there's "ETV," targeting cable's 30 million or so fielded digital set-tops out there.
"ETV" is CableLabs shorthand for "Enhanced Television," and specifically, its work on how to advance program-synchronous interactivity into the digital cable scene. Bound apps. Triggers that come within a TV show. ETV is all of that.
It all started back in February, when concerned MSO technologists convened at the CableLabs Winter Conference, to think through a back-atchya to Murdoch's "red button."
Three things top the to-do list, says Don Dulchinos, VP of advanced platforms and services at CableLabs. One is defining the "trigger"—the interactive element that gets stitched into a digital broadcast and appears as the "clickable thing" on the TV screen. Second is a scripting language, for content developers to use when making ETV applications. Watch GoldPocket and MetaTV for the action there—both are contributing language to the spec.
Third is figuring out how to make the fielded boxes understand incoming ETV apps, which means doing it in binary code. (One can't forget how skinny many of those deployed boxes are, in terms of processing power and memory.)
Fear not. Ultimately, ETV probably makes TV more interesting. Vote someone off the island, using the remote. Play along with whatever game. Push the button, get the recipe for that tasty-looking sweet-and-sour cabbage e-mailed to you.
If this sounds like a new chapter to an old story—it is. But this time, doing nothing could be a painful option. (Are you ready for some football?) —LE
#35 Portable video
Take your TV with you
And you can take it with you. Portable video players started to spring up at last year's Consumer Electronics Show: Sony showed a flat panel TV with a handle, calling it "location-free TV."
Cable's traditional suppliership is also eyeing the scene. Multi-room DVRs will likely lead the way, followed by portable DVRs—Pace Micro Technologies calls its "PVR2GO," as one example.
And, the computer/IT community is busy building home media centers, which happily accommodate gizmos like the one by Creative Labs. Many, many others are anticipated to line the walls of next month's CES event in Vegas.
All three contenders—cable, CE, and PC—will be as successful as the digital content they can render portable. And yes, the content community is avidly watching what's happening with portable video. After all, it's likely to be their video that's ported. They lived through Napster. They know where they're vulnerable.
The missing piece is the security that makes those devices "trustworthy" for copy-protected content—a category known, far and wide (and especially to copyright lawyers) as "digital rights management." (See #31, DRM: New speak for "conditional access.") —LE
#36 TiVo Inc.
DVR's pioneer lives on
So, which side of the fence will TiVo land on?
A list of analysts as long as your arm held that TiVo would by now be part of a larger suitor—or be out of business altogether. No cable deal? DirecTV's looking to corporate cousin NDS Group for a second source for DVR software? No way TiVo can live much longer as is.
Well, TiVo continues to prove everyone wrong, though it has yet to fill its cache with subscriber counts.
But what TiVo does next will be all-important. The company continues to make attempts at reinventing itself. In this most recent phase of evolution, TiVo is looking to make waves by securing content that can be delivered to the DVR itself. It signed a rather vague deal with NetFlix earlier this year, but TiVo will need a whole lot more if it ever hopes to be more than a "me-too" content offering. Comcast is now talking about a VOD library with 10,000 hours of content, and it has HD-DVRs ready to roll. Cable-based multi-room DVRs aren't that far off either. If TiVo's not careful, it won't just have a hard time keeping up; it will have a hard time just getting out of the way. —JB
#37 Vidiom Systems
Pioneering the OCAP movement
Paddling toward what? Mostly in the background, and mostly at the behest of Time Warner Cable, Vidiom is gaining a substantial foothold in the software that is the OpenCable Applications Platform. Like, it wrote a lot of it.
By their very nature, of course, OCAP software stacks can be written by anyone. That's pretty much the point of open standards.
But usually, someone comes along and starts working on it before others do. In this case, that puts Vidiom as a place to go to get "the OCAP eco-system" toolkits for applications development, verification, testing, training, company-specific customizations, and the OCAP stack itself.
Digital boxes with OCAP inside could start pushing out as early as next year. Consumer electronics devices will likely need some version of it, coincident with whatever two-way devices they're honing, as part of the Plug & Play agreement.
That makes Vidiom a company to watch, as a sort of "OCAP pioneer." —LE
#38 DOCSIS 3.0
200 Mbps, anyone?
But 3.0 will require a new spin of silicon, which will extend the process a bit. —JB
#39 Kasenna Inc.
The do-it-all VOD company
Though most of its success has come from the telcos and the hospitality industry, it is starting to generate some business with cable operators such as Charter Communications.
And it keeps investing in its future. Kasenna, perhaps borrowing a page from RAM-server specialist Broadbus Technologies, recently introduced its first RAM/disk-based server hybrid. —JB
#40 Concurrent Computer Corp.
Will this VOD pioneer continue to dance alone?
Concurrent, like SeaChange, has yet to integrate its backoffice software with next-gen video pump providers, relying instead on its 4G server-software combo to drum up new deployments, yet has done so with little success from our vantage point. Still, Concurrent can't be discounted. It has years of experience to offer service providers.
The buzz we hear these days is about what Concurrent might look like next year and beyond. A popular vision holds that another VOD vendor or a larger company would be happy to get its hands on Concurrent, but perhaps for different reasons.
While vendors new to VOD would covet Concurrent's assets as a new revenue stream, those already in the game might be more interested in buying market share. —JB
Revving up turnkey VoIP
Net2Phone's recent wave of success is riding on the fact that cable operators around the world want to offer IP telephony services, but don't necessarily have the in-house resources to make it happen. Offering a range of turnkey offerings that place more or less financial risk on the MSO, depending on the operator's situation and goals, Net2Phone is starting to carve out a nice business with small- and medium-sized customers, including the likes of Bresnan Communications, Cequel III and corporate cousin Liberty Cablevision in Puerto Rico. It also notched a hunting license with the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC). Net2Phone's software and integration expertise then provides the glue to hold it all together.
Net2Phone is in a great spot to cut some business from the Tier II and Tier III operators, but it will have a bigger challenge trying to win a slice of the pie with the largest MSOs. Not that there is anything wrong with that. After all, there will be plenty of VoIP business to go around in 2005 when deployments really heat up. —JB
Who are these guys?
A key reason is the company's acquisition of Internet Photonics, as well as a new focus on broadband articulated by company management.
Ciena put a lot of muscle behind the acquisition of VOD transport provider Internet Photonics when the company announced the purchase in late 2003, expanding the product portfolio to include Layer 0/1/2 packet switching and optical Ethernet transport.
That means Ciena can now offer its customers converged, multiservice transport and switching of VOD, VoIP, high-speed data backhaul, wireless backhaul, HDTV, commercial services and more.
A year ago, IP could count five cable operators as customers; today, the number stands at nine. Whereas the company's equipment passed 6 million homes a year ago, it now passes 15 million, with more to come.
The IP acquisition was part of a total company makeover as well. The company now touts itself as a "network specialist" that's focused on solving business problems.
The application-based focus concentrates on: access infrastructure upgrades; storage and Ethernet service value; network scaling for high-bandwidth applications; core network convergence and automation; and packet network integration. —RB
Finding strength in iTV
2005 should be an even better year as MSOs ramp up their interactive television activities and try to extend the life of those thin-client set-tops. ICTV can only hope that its HeadendWare platform, which places most of the processing power at the headend, is the order of the day.
And cable's not the only place it is looking to build its business. At last check, this iTV veteran firm was busy pouring its foundation for the telco TV world, securing integration deals with IPTV set-top providers such as Amino Communication and i3micro. —JB
#44 The Videophone
Living la vida Jetsons
Meanwhile, Viseon Inc. also has gained visibility in the videophone competition, landing a deal with Time Warner Cable's Northeast Ohio division to offer its VisiFone and VidiFone Eye-to-Eye service to enterprise high-speed data customers. —KB
#45 VOD's fresh meat
A slab of on-demand heaven
A new kind of power play
Up to now, the big problem with powerline technology was the throughput, which has hovered at a mere 14 Megabits per second—enough for data and perhaps voice traffic, but not for the video and multimedia streams most envision for the home network of the future.
Intellon has been key in a recent effort to put even more juice into powerline home networking through the HomePlug Powerline Alliance marketing group. This fall the group announced it was putting the finishing touches on a new specification, HomePlug AV, that would boost broadband throughput to within 200 Mbps. Products supporting the new scheme are expected in late 2005.
Until then, Intellon has come out with an interim silicon chipset that can boost throughput to the 85 Mbps range, enough to support broadband video transport. —KB
#47 Broadband over powerline
Contender or pretender?
The first shot of power came in July, when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) announced it would begin developing a standard for BPL dubbed IEEE P1675, "Standard for Broadband over Power Line Hardware." The project's goal is to give electric utilities a standard for setting up BPL networks, as well as guidelines for installing hardware and distribution lines. Completion? Mid-2006.
A second power boost came in October, when the FCC established the guidelines mainly to protect existing licensed radio services from interference issues stemming from BPL networks, but the move also put the technology back on the industry radar. While major utilities still appear skeptical about BPL's prospects, the technology does have a major booster in FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
Despite numerous trials among energy utilities, only one—Cincinnati's Cinergy Corp.—has rolled out a broadband over powerline service. But with FCC support and standards to govern interoperability, it may be that BPL will arise in the coming years as a more powerful broadband contender. —KB
#48 Pace Micro Technology
The big payoff
On the bright side, Pace has licenses for both of the major cable conditional access systems (Motorola Broadband's and Scientific-Atlanta's) and has notched some nice deployment deals with Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse Networks and Comcast Cable. But wait, that's what I wrote last year. Sigh.
Let's try this again, shall we?
Cable operators always ask (demand) that their set-top vendors drive more innovation into their products. Pace has always been an inventive sort, though its efforts don't always translate into big orders.
Remember that digital set-top that incorporated the Sega Dreamcast console? Interesting concept. Not deployable. The Digital Video Adapter, a "set-back" device designed to help cable with its all-digital migration? On the shelf. But that, as they say, is also old hat. Sigh (again).
Wait, I know, I know! Pioneer is mothballing its MSO-direct digital set-top plans, all but paving a path for Pace. Yes! That's it! I have solved this mystery! Yea, me! But that might not happen, either. Sigh (thrice). —JB
#49 WildBlue Communications
Up, up, and away!
For starters, it's using advanced Ka-band technology to deliver high-speed data services to areas still untouched by DSL and cable lines. In fact, when CED ran an interview with WildBlue CEO Thomas Moore in the September issue, we received e-mails from several people in "broadband-free" zones who literally could not wait another second to sign up with WildBlue. A good indication of pent-up demand.
Even though other satellite broadband service providers have survived (StarBand, DirecWay), WildBlue claims to have an ace in the hole that will help the company keep costs way down: its technology is largely based on DOCSIS. —JB
#50 Entropic Communications
Coax to the max
Entropic is the only silicon company so far to join the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA), a group that counts backers such as Comcast Cable, EchoStar Communications, Panasonic, Motorola, RadioShack Corp. and Toshiba. So, it's in great company.—JB