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Cable's San Francisco Meet

Sat, 04/30/2005 - 8:00pm
CED Staff

Wireless voice, new IPGs and the all-digital migration
are helping the industry connect to convergence

San Francisco's most famous landmark is the Golden Gate Bridge, and that proved a fitting backdrop for a 2005 National Show that bridged cable into a larger technological world, from SIP's evolving play in voice and multimedia technology to new integrations with cellular and digital simulcasting.

This year's show featured several significant changes—apart from the weekend start—and National Show Chairman Steve Burke made that clear at the opening panel session. The Comcast chief operating officer told the crowd that this year's show—with the slogan "Cable Puts You in Control"—focused less on deal-making and more on issues facing cable's future. With a pared down agenda covering just two-and-a-half days, Burke said it also focused less on the industry talking about itself and more on listening to input from other sectors—such as electronic gaming and consumer electronics—that were increasingly intersecting with cable.

THE NATIONAL SHOW - 2005 -
The National Show -2005-
THE NATIONAL SHOW - 2005 -
Nowhere was that more evident than in the closing general session that featured Sprint Corp. President and COO Len Lauer—marking the first time a telco executive took a seat on a National Show stage.

The opening general session also was a first for NCTA's new President, Kyle McSlarrow. He noted with just five weeks under his belt, he has already learned, "Brand X is not just a product in a taste test, a la carte has nothing to do with dinner, and Alaska is a great state that I now plan to visit."

That produced a laugh from the audience, but McSlarrow continued in a more serious vein by noting that "now more than ever, cable's digital broadband technology is the platform for the future."

To get to that future, the industry will need to work to ensure, among other things, that regulations for new services do not follow the inflexible patterns of the past, particularly regarding Voice-over-IP services, he said.

The show also literally displayed growth, with 190,000 square feet of exhibitor space. That is a 19 percent increase compared to 2004.

The fantastic four

A big focus at the show was cable's move toward the "quadruple play" and the service that will help operators achieve it: wireless voice.

Sprint Corp. continued its active courting of cable customers at the show. Not only did company President & COO Len Lauer participate in the closing panel session, but the Overland Park, Kan.-based telco announced it had added three new MSOs to the list, signing up Massillon Cable TV Inc., Wave Broadband and Blue Ridge Communications.

Sprint is indeed continuing its hunt to add more new cable partners, but it also is moving into the second phase of its cable business strategy—moving from just offering VoIP to wireless Sprint-branded services to cable customers as well, according to Jim Patterson, vice president of Sprint's carrier, cable and wholesale markets.

Down the road, the strategy will also expand to embedding Sprint applications in cable hardware including set-top boxes, he said. Evidence of this could be seen at the Scientific-Atlanta booth, where a Sprint cell phone could be used to remotely program an S-A Explorer 8000 digital video recorder.

Sprint and S-A weren't alone in wedding cellular and DVR functions. Gemstar-TV Guide International also unveiled its new Java-based mobile interactive programming guide, which also allows users to program DVRs running Gemstar's I-Guide IPG with wireless handsets. Motorola demonstrated the capability at its booth.

Patterson said he could not comment on whether Sprint is talking to Gemstar about also integrating that capability on its cell phones, "but we are talking to many companies."

Sprint also came to the show with news that it is rolling out cellular phone service in a trial with Time Warner Cable in Kansas City. Sprint already provides the MSO with VoIP connectivity services, and the trial in many ways will determine whether that should expand to include wireless services—and how it should be fielded. In the trial, Time Warner will promote Sprint's Fair and Flexible service with three plan levels and three handsets. In addition, all calls made from the cellular handsets to the customer's home are free.

Time Warner is supplying the billing, as well as the Level 1 technical support.

All in all, Sprint has made good progress in the technical issues surrounding its integration with cable providers and their services, "but we've got to develop the business case," Patterson noted. "We think there's a lot of promise for this business."

Nor is the relationship one-way, with Sprint providing the service additions to cable. Sprint also is forging deals with cable operators to use cable-based fiber and Ethernet network connections as alternatives to traditional phone lines and T-1 connections in some markets. It is active with Cox Communications in this field as well as with Charter Communications, Patterson said.

"We like to use them. We have that equation to solve, and we are working with them to find out how to make that modem fit a T-1," he added.

In the future, Sprint's deals to provide MSOs with voice and wireless service may be reciprocated with cable deals to provide Sprint with co-marketed video service offered to the telco's customer base. That could take the form of cable service marketing placed in Sprint PCS stores.

"I think there will be a very good cooperation book to be written there," Patterson said.

Sprint wasn't the only company that was waxing wireless. An emerging group of vendors graced the floor with capabilities designed to get cable into the mobile voice game.

Among them, LongBoard Inc. offers a SIP-based mobility platform, and has already teamed with two traditional cable voice vendors: ARRIS and Cedar Point Communications. In those agreements, LongBoard has matched its Mobility Application Platform (LMAP) with Cedar Point's SAFARI C3 Media Switching System and ARRIS Touchstone Telephony Modem.

In the LongBoard scenario, customers use a dual-mode handset that enables cable operators to handoff calls across both Wi-Fi and public cellular networks. The handset determines which mode in which to operate based on the signal strength. All things being equal, the handset will opt for the Wi-Fi connection.

The idea, explained company Director of Marketing David Schwartz, is to keep the customer on Wi-Fi networks as much as possible, as to avoid cellular fees. That model also ensures that cable operators keep more of the revenue compared to a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), which might keep 80 percent or more, Schwartz said, noting that LongBoard allows operators to keep up to 35 percent of revenue generated from the mobile service. LongBoard offers mobile voice services to more than 300,000 subscribers, Schwartz said.

Another company with similar aims is BridgePort Networks, which also demonstrated a solution that handed off calls from mobile and broadband networks.

In BridgePort's "roaming model," the cable operator and mobile carrier each provide their own phone numbers and bill their own subscribers. The operator may have roaming agreements with mobile carriers.

In the "wholesale purchase" or MVNO model, the cable MSO resells mobile phone service over the mobile carrier's network.

New "guiding" lights

Operators also showed off a batch of innovations tied to interactive program guides.

The GuideWorks VRN can be made to
promote a range of programming genres.
The Comcast Media Center (CMC) and GuideWorks LLC, the Comcast Corp./Gemstar-TV Guide International joint venture, showed off "video-rich" navigation enhancements that hook into the flagship iGuide interactive program guide (IPG).

Using a mosaic approach, the new Video-Rich Navigation (VRN) platform creates hyperlinks between linear TV, video-on-demand, and local content. Further, it can create video-based "genre portals" for everything from news to kids, sports and entertainment programming. It is also capable of creating genre portals around specific events or being changed-out during particular times of the day.

The VRN platform integrates real-time video with a real-time data stream that instructs the user-interface to provide navigation choices based on what the video displays.

Comcast plans to make the enhancement available alongside the "A-24" release from GuideWorks, which is slated to enter pilots following its emergence from Acadia testing in the late summer, according to CMC Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Gary Traver. The VRN is designed to run on digital set-tops as technologically thin as the widely-deployed Motorola DCT-2000.

The VRN capability also gives operators like Comcast the ability to compete with mosaic apps already in use by U.S. DBS service providers.

Traver noted that the VRN goes beyond traditional mosaic guides because it is also built into and can extract information from the underlying program guide.

The CMC hopes to market the VRN to MSOs other than Comcast, offering it as a centralized platform capable of customizing portals with local video content, including promotions, that is relevant to the operator's market. Partnering MSOs, Traver explained, can customize their own genre portals centrally in partnership with the CMC, rather than at multiple headend sites.

The VRN is the first of many products to come out of the Comcast-Gemstar partnership, said Gerard Kunkel, the president of GuideWorks and a vice president of business development at Comcast. Kunkel, the former president of WorldGate Communications, joined the GuideWorks organization about a year ago.

Cablevision hopes its new guide will
drive application usage and VOD sales.
Not to be left out of the IPG mix was Cablevision Systems Corp., which took the wraps off a new proprietary interface for its iO: Interactive Optimum digital cable service.

The new menu-driven system features horizontal and vertical categories that show a viewer's current location within the interface, and offers directional indicators forward or back to the main menu. The main menu lists horizontal options of traditional features and services, including the channel guide, video-on-demand, games, enhanced TV and the "iO Showcase." Cablevision has also color-coded each category: Purple, for example, indicates on-demand, while blue represents iTV, and orange denotes games.

Cablevision initially will offer the new system on Scientific-Atlanta boxes, but hopes to have it available everywhere, including on deployed Sony-made boxes, by this spring, explained Patrick Donoghue, the MSO's vice president of interactive television and operations.

Leslie Ellis Receives the Vanguard Award
One of our own: Leslie Ellis,
a regular contributor to
CED and Multichannel News
who also serves as CTAM’s
technology advisor, received
the “Associates & Affiliates”
Vanguard Award.
She dedicated the award to Roger Brown,
CED’s publisher and
editorial director.
Cablevision hopes the snazzier, easier to use interface will drive application usage and video-on-demand sales. The new platform also incorporates an "active rentals" bookmarking element that enables customers to start and stop VOD titles on different TVs in the households. Traditionally, VOD titles are shackled to a specific set-top and progress of a program can't be transferred to other TVs.

Cablevision's internal engineering and technology group developed the new interface in partnership with DevelopOnBox LLC, an application developer, and Schematic, an agency that specializes in television interface designs.

Cablevision initially will use banners on the new system to highlight content on the service rather than to pursue opportunities with potential advertisers, Donoghue explained.

MSO-led activities aside, probably the most buzz related to navigation involved Hillcrest Communications—a Rockville, Md.-based startup that still is in relative stealth mode but did conduct demonstrations in its executive suite. Much more about Hillcrest and its unique approach to navigation will appear in the June issue of CED.

Simulcast and the road to all-digital

The floor was also full of gear that will help operators migrate to an all-digital network.

On the set-top front, Pace Micro Technology introduced the DC 501 "Chicago" all-digital set-top. An answer to boxes such as Motorola's DCT700, Chicago will be offered with options for OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) and the DOCSIS Set-top Gateway (DSG), a CableLabs signaling spec for IPG information and other data delivered to the set-top box. Pace did not disclose pricing.

Pace's all-digital "Chicago"
Pace’s all-digital
“Chicago” set-top will
support Motorola’s and
S-A’s conditional
access systems.
A standard-definition device, Chicago is designed to stand vertically or lay horizontally. Pace has licenses for both the Scientific-Atlanta PowerKEY and Motorola MediaCipher conditional access systems. The set-top maker said the DC 501 is the first in a series of all-digital boxes Pace will deploy this year.

Although Scientific-Atlanta did not make any formal announcements about all-digital boxes, the vendor had plenty of them to demonstrate on the floor, including the Explorer 8240 HD, 3240 HD, and 1800.

Outside of the home, RGB Networks formally unveiled the Simulcast Edge Processor (SEP), the first product based on the startup's Video Intelligence Architecture.

Designed to simplify cable digital simulcast architectures, the SEP, when deployed at the edge of the broadband network, can simultaneously receive multiple MPEG-2 digital video streams, decode each stream, and modulate and upconvert them for delivery to subscribers as NTSC analog video. BigBand Networks Inc. announced an integrated digital simulcast platform the week prior to the show that consists of its BRD210 GigE decoding chassis and a GFM103 card for BigBand's Broadband Multimedia-Service Router.

Separately, RGB will beef up its sales potential via a deal with Motorola Inc., which has agreed to market and support the vendor's video processing gear to its broadband service customers. Under the agreement, Motorola will also provide system integration support for RGB's digital migration products, starting with the 1-rack unit SEP edge device.

 

Content protection takes spotlight

Protecting the rush of new content needed to fill the digital pipeline, securing home networks, and addressing the deepening problem of cable service theft highlighted the "What's Mine is Mine: New Approaches in Individual Consumption Enablers" session.

With predicted annual losses to industry wide cable service theft topping a staggering $6.5 billion annually (but down to $4.76 billion, according to a recently-released NCTA survey), and with 11.5 million households suspected of having illegal access to various cable services, the need for strict content protection and signal security has never been as pressing, panelists insisted.

"Today, security is not just technology. It must also be designed with operational aspects and scalability and for prevention, detection and countermeasures. Now, it's about process and experience," said Robin Wilson, vice president of business development for Nagravision SA.

Industries representing consumer electronics and motion pictures are joining cable in pushing for tighter, intelligent content protection and security. "Last year, cable and [the] CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) invited the Motion Picture Association to join in meetings about digital content protection technologies and other considerations, because cable must protect all forms of content," said Brad Hunt, senior vice president and CTO of the Motion Picture Association of America.

He added that a growing concern among content owners is protecting high-definition content on digital recorders. "Content owners have a vital interest in defining content protection," he said.

One answer to the security issue may be downloadable security, which, according to Jim Fahrny, a Fellow for Comcast Corp's engineering group, provides a low-cost, high level of security.

"It enables the $50 set-top vision, a path to future transition to new generation CA (conditional access) systems and better consumer experience at retail. It's now moving into the implementation phase," Fahrny said.

A set-top, he explained, can be downloaded with a set of keys and an encrypted image, creating its own "personality" for security, and can enable "higher levels of security at lower costs."

Another method, RF fingerprinting, is being explored as well, said Lee Pedlow, director of systems engineering for Sony Electronics.

"It's a powerful scheme to detect relocation of devices attached to digital cable networks, and can reduce operational costs. It's very complementary to other security initiatives," he said.

The panelists concurred that more teamwork is needed among the growing number of content and service providers to address serious issues of content protection, secured home networking and digital rights management.

"Content owners need to assume a meaningful role in protecting new content and securing home networks," concluded Hunt.

New services mean new customer demands

The familiar mantra of creating a valuable customer experience for video-on-demand and a host of new services and technologies, while creating viable business models to advance the experience to a level of profitability, dominated the discussion at the "Attack of the Empowered Consumer: Understanding New Media Markets" panel session at the National Show in San Francisco.

Dramatic changes in TV are coming, and those who execute the best, not who has the best technology, will win, insisted John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems Inc.

"We're moving from interaction to transaction, and barriers are breaking down among age groups. The vision of appliances is coming together, so the key is to build agility into network architectures."

Simplicity and ease-of-use will dictate just how successful many of the emerging technologies and services will be, noted Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast Corp. "The simplicity and elegance of Google was in its interface. The question is, can we enable cable customers' experiences to be integrated and ubiquitous and give them what they want? We can't lose our aggressiveness or innovation and must continually invest."

Google co-founder Larry Page conceded the cable industry's on-demand technology has a ways to go in the user experience area. "There's not much experience in this part of the industry," he said.

Google, Page continued, is tinkering with a search service outfitted specifically to sift for TV channels and shows. "We're just starting to have the technology to transport the information to devices and will begin taking video submissions."

Knowing your market and what it wants are two crucial requirements, said Jonathan Miller, chairman and CEO of America Online Inc. "Once you get your head around what consumers want, and you have a business model to support it, it's pretty sweeping, and very different than the old walled garden approach. At the heart is a program environment and search experience."

Delivering a quality experience to the consumer is the thread that is binding service providers and content creators alike. Building a viable business model to complement that experience will be a top priority for both.

"We try to build our business model to balance risk and creativity, and we're seeing business value in delivering quality experiences to customers—both VOD and in theaters. We see an opportunity for both and a future full of promise," said Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks.

A case-in-point, Katzenberg said, was "Shrek 2," which pulled down $1 billion in movie theaters worldwide, and a like amount in VOD, DVD and cable sales.

Video conferencing in HD is also expected to take off, panelists agreed, and a looming challenge for the cable industry will be its transition to advertising.

At the end of the day, however, panelists agreed that simplicity and ease of use for advancing technology will drive more customer demand for on-demand services.

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