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Future fusion

Mon, 01/31/2005 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner

Future fusion
CED Feature: "Future Fusion"
BroadLogic a key cog in emerging ‘Wideband’ movement
Last April, CableLabs announced plans for DOCSIS 3.0, a next-gen spec that aims to blow by DOCSIS 2.0 as if it were a horse and carriage. Although CableLabs has not yet had much to say about the "guts" of 3.0, last month's SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies shed some light on that subject as execs from Cisco Systems and Broadcom Corp. discussed the "Wideband" protocol and "channel bonding" techniques. But BroadLogic, a silicon startup that counts Cisco and Time Warner Ventures as investors, has plenty of skin in this game, as well.

CED Editor Jeff Baumgartner recently caught up with BroadLogic President and CEO Tony Francesca to discuss the implications of Wideband. An edited transcript follows.

CED: Give us the CliffsNotes on what the Wideband protocol is.

Tony Francesca
Francesca
Francesca: We look at the HFC network today and we have...technologies that we refer to as Wideband, which solves a number of problems that can unlock, in our view, the true potential of HFC.

If you look at the RF plant, and in the United States in particular, it is sliced into 6 MHz channels. All of the technologies that are developed for CPE (customer premise equipment) only take one slice at a time and process that, whether they tune it, demodulate it, decode it, etc.

The bandwidth capacity that's enabled, the physical infrastructure, is not being mined properly, in our view. One of the key technologies...is to look at the ability of the CPE to process, simultaneously, multiple channels. Hence the term Wideband. It's not a new modulation scheme or RF channel infrastructure. It's the ability to simultaneously process at a much lower cost. When you do that, it delivers cable operators the ability to deliver much more efficient networks and higher speed services.

If cable operators were able to do that, they [could] unify a number of physical networks. They have a number of channels dedicated to VOD. They have one or two QAMs dedicated to DOCSIS. A number of channels dedicated to broadcast. Those are all different networks they deliver. When they put them into specific physical buckets like that, they don't get efficiencies, either.

Wideband, for us, is to help operators recover that 400 MHz of bandwidth.

CED: What do you see as the practical applications of Wideband? Where does video come into the picture?

Francesca: Even if you look at current DOCSIS, people with cable modems and PCs access a number of services. They're already streaming video over it today. But as the pipe gets larger, it has the ability to carry [more than] just data-centric applications—much richer content, including much higher quality video and telephony services.

We think that 1 gibabit (per second service) can deliver very efficient and cost-effective solutions. The ability is to really leverage the physical infrastructure and make the pipe as wide as possible. Then the operators can decide the use of that.

CED: What's driving the need for this technology?

Francesca: An urgent need in the short-term definitely outside the U.S. is DSL technologies, whether it's VDSL, UDSL, ADSL2...They're all delivering a 30 Mbps to 50 Mbps service today. They know how to get to 100 Mbps in the next 12 months per subscriber. Anything that is DOCSIS 2.0 or earlier—even on a per user basis—[uses] one QAM [which] can't support more than 37 Mbps. And that has to be shared with hundreds of subscribers. This high-profit business that cable operators have loved and enjoyed is getting drained away. Customers are moving to the same price for a lot more usable higher speed. There's an urgent need for that.

In the U.S., cable operators are seeing the same thing. If you look at the telcos putting fiber into the ground or Ethernet to the home...it's all about the delivery of higher-speed services. When they do that, not only can they turn up the dial on how fast you can get on the Internet, but also what to deliver over it, including video. We see that coming here in the next couple of years. That's why CableLabs is working toward [a new specification]. That's the urgency.

CED: What will cable operators have to rip out, or at least change, to add Wideband?

Francesca: The goals are that whatever goes forward has to be backward-compatible. They don't want to tell all of their current subscribers who have DOCSIS 1.0, 1.1 and 2.0 cable modems that they have to replace them. The objective there is to continue to support legacy products...and legacy services, but have a super-set [of] next-gen products that are able to process more than one RF channel.

Then, at least for the CPE, subscribers can pick and choose which products they want to buy. They can go to Best Buy or the cable operator and say they want the faster cable modem or the slower cable modem. They will have all of those choices available to them.

From the headend, the goal is also the same, but it's going to depend on the installed base of the headend equipment and how evolvable that is—whether it's a software upgrade, or it's a blade insert or a new chassis.

CED: Will this technology work on systems that use 8 MHz channels?

Francesca: Absolutely. Our technology has been designed from day one to support 6 MHz channels, 7 MHz channels, and 8 MHz channels, because all of those exist on a worldwide basis. But the key objective is how to make those look like one, unified, aggregate bucket at the higher layers of products and services.

Today, on a single QAM, you can multiplex 10, maybe 15 MPEG SD (standard definition) streams, or two HD (high definition) streams and maybe two more SD streams in that same bucket. But if you look at a wider channel basis...you can statistically multiplex not only lots of video channels...but you [gain] the ability to mine more bandwidth to start with. You can also deliver services that are higher speed and unicast. You get all of those benefits, but the channel has to be wide.

CED: Does Wideband compete with or complement channel bonding?

Francesca: First of all, Wideband, for us, is just a nomenclature. CableLabs uses a term called "channel bonding"—that's a generic term. Our goal is to get standards adopted, and when that happens, the market is broader, and we believe we have technologies to be able to solve those problems and continue to go forward and be successful, for cable operators as well as the supply base.

The concepts are the same. What people may be arguing is a specific implementation of that—the command structure for supporting all those channels and how you would use those channels simultaneously. But at the end of the day, [Wideband] and bonding allow you to get all of those benefits.

From that perspective, we have technology that is fully compatible for the goal that's being talked about for DOCSIS 3.0. That goal is also to be backward-compatible with anything that currently exists—2.0, 1.1, 1.0. Our technology is fully compatible with anything that is in service today or products that ship today.

CableLabs has a number of suppliers proposing specific implementations of using multiple channels and to simultaneously process those.

CED: Is there any fear that the concepts behind Wideband and channel bonding could become the S-CDMA of DOCSIS 3.0, meaning it's a technology required by the spec, but not necessarily one that many North American MSOs would actually deploy?

Francesca: We haven't seen that at the protocol level. You bring up S-CDMA. Although that was a big battle in 2.0 and then you look at what people have actually deployed, they aren't using S-CDMA. So I think this time around they are trying to be more practical. Let's make sure we ask for things that, at the end of the day, we know that we can practically use, and that we don't burden our suppliers with a longer time to market or incremental cost for [something] that might not see the light of day.

CED: So when it comes to DOCSIS 3.0, we can safely assume that politics won't factor in as much?

Francesca: You can't ever simplify it to that level. There will always be politics. Hopefully the committee is smart enough to understand what is really effective versus what are jockeying positions. Our goal is that this gets implemented very quickly and that the wider the channel, the more efficiency you get. People shouldn't be thinking that double or quadruple is good enough, because once you put these things in, they last a long time in the infrastructure—five to 10 years—and you don't want to be ripping them out...and find out that you could've done more than what you thought.

CED: Although Cisco was out in front recently to discuss some of the implications of DOCSIS Wideband, what's BroadLogic's technical role in all of this? Is your silicon going to grace a new class of CMTSs, cable modems, or both?

Francesca: At the end of the day, we're a chip company. We will not deliver end products to cable operators. We refer to our products generically as "broadband engines," the components that go into the CPE.

CED: So you're not in the CMTS at all?

Francesca: Today, no. That's going to be driven by standards, and the volume is not large [enough] for us to focus on that today. CPEs are in the tens of millions of units. Our goal is that devices in the home should be at consumer price points.

Related to us focusing on CPE, we will be talking about...the ability to take technology that is today regarded as infrastructure—headend or fiber node venue type of equipment—and, with our Wideband technology, take that end of the network into the home. You'll be seeing technologies that traditionally go into the network—at the fiber node and up—at consumer price points. That's the breakthrough we're talking about.

CED: How far along are you on the product timeline?

Francesca: We expect products and services to be shipping and deployed this calendar year. This is not a daydream that is multiple years away.

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