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Virtual reality

Sat, 12/31/2005 - 7:00pm
CED Staff

'Virtual Reality'
Hundreds gathered on the Web last month to attend CED's second annual Cable Television & Broadband Expo, a "virtual" trade show.

The show took place entirely on the Internet, covering a wide range of technology and trends through eight panel sessions and a keynote from Tony Werner, the CTO of Liberty Global.

Here's a highlight of the keynote and all eight sessions. If you missed it, the entire show is archived on the Web at www.cableandbroadbandexpo.com.

Eyeing global competition

Show keynoter Tony Werner offered a glimpse of the rapid changes that will impact broadband competition over the next five to 10 years, and provided a global view of the current competitive picture.

Although technology, led by higher and higher data speeds, is "breaking the walls down" for competitors, such as "over the top" services, the good news, he said, was that cable has historically been in a good position to compete.

Cable, he explained, competed well with broadcast television in the earlier days and battled VHS with pay-per-view. DBS offered cable its first real form of competition beginning in the mid-1990s. Today, the telcos are making their first concerted effort to get into the video game.

Tony Werner
On the data front, DSL is beginning to pick up steam in North America, with 16 percent growth versus cable's 10 percent.

Aggressive pricing from the telcos will continue and cable is in for a "very tight race" from here on out," Werner said.

But the competitive picture looks different outside the U.S. Worldwide, DSL holds the same advantage over cable modems as cable modems do in the states. Additionally, unbundled local loop laws enable companies to rent dry copper, install their own DSLAM and offer DSL service for 2 to 3 euros per month in some markets.

Those telcos are also better served by shorter loop lengths, which equate into higher speed capabilities. While less than 30 percent of the loop lengths are shorter than 2.5 kilometers in the U.S., that figure rises to 70 percent in Europe, allowing operators there more opportunities to deliver ADSL2+ and speeds in the range of 18 to 19 Mbps, and giving them a wide enough pipe to deliver video services, he said.

Syncing up with ETV

In the "ETV Syncs up with Cable" session, panelists provided an indepth view of "enhanced television."

First off, what is ETV? As a subset of interactive television (iTV), it generally refers to applications (delivered via the set-top or a separate PC) that are directly associated and essentially "synced" with the video that's being broadcast. That could include things such as real-time voting and polling.

John Callahan
ETV, explained John Callahan, senior vice president, advanced technology group at Time Warner Cable, is a different animal than video-on-demand, news tickers, sports tickers and games that are not linked to a particular program.

The cable industry started to take a close look at ETV about 18 months ago. One requirement of success, Callahan noted, was that ETV needed a common footprint for U.S. programs. That would mean that the programming signal and associated ETV applications and "triggers" would work the same on, for example, a system operated by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, or Cox Communications.

To that end, ETV is in the process of being tied to OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), a middleware specified by CableLabs. There is also work being done to ensure backwards compatibility with non-OCAP set-tops.

CableLabs is breaking down the ETV system into three components: authoring tools for programmers, transmission systems for operators, and Java-based "user agents" that render the text and accept the ETV signaling at the set-top layer.

Linked to that, there's also lots of attention being paid to the ETV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), which is an application format that the user agent interprets.

CableLabs released the ETV specs in early 2005, and the plan (as of December) was to issue operational guidelines by the end of 2005 or early 2006, said Frank Sandoval, director of OCAP specifications and advanced platforms & services at CableLabs.

ETV will have plenty of technical and operational challenges to overcome. Because of its two-way nature, the return channel needs special attention, especially if, for example, millions of users concurrently cast votes for "American Idol," explained Craig Smithpeters, the manager of advanced technology and standards at Cox Communications.

Integration presents yet another challenge. "It's probably the biggest one," Smithpeters said. Ideally, Cox would like to leverage OCAP or a subset such as OnRamp to OCAP.

OCAP "is the easiest to support long term, but the slowest option today," he added.

In the U.S., most viewers today access ETV applications via a two-screen PC-TV environment, which is where ABC has already found plenty of success.

ABC debuted ETV alongside its coverage of the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, and today offers enhancements to a raft of regular programs and specials, including "The Academy Awards," "All My Children," the Indianapolis 500, "Alias," and Sunday and Monday Night Football.

ABC grew attached to ETV because the majority of TV viewing is still patterned with linear television. "You fish where the fish are," said Rick Mandler, vice president & general manager of Walt Disney Internet Group & ABC's Enhanced TV.

Commercial enterprises

Cable operators are trying to make stronger connections with business customers, and their technology options for doing so extend beyond traditional coax. Panelists for the "Getting Down to Business" session delved into the strategies and options cable operators can tap to gain a foothold in the business market.

For Time Warner Cable, enterprise services have grown from targeting smaller home-office users to include large corporations, with services sold by all of the MSO's divisions, according to Mark Wyman, director of technology and operations for Road Runner Business Class.

When Time Warner is evaluating a new technology, it looks for elements that work well with its existing knowledge set and network assets, Wyman said. It also needs to be scalable, repeatable and manageable for Time Warner's two-dozen-plus systems.

"Offering a service to just a handful of customers is not the type of business we are looking to offer," he says. "We want a service that we can offer to hundreds of thousands of customers and something that we can deploy nationwide."

Arcwave Inc. is helping operators target small- to medium-sized businesses with wireless plant extension technologies, said Chris Martin, Arcwave's vice president of marketing. But given that, it is somewhat underserved—Martin notes 40 percent of the businesses in this category nationwide do not have broadband access.

Comcast, meanwhile, is starting to ramp up its commercial services business, which already reaches 22 of the top 25 markets in 35 states, said Brian Yohn, senior director of commercial marketing for Comcast Online and Voice Services.

"But as broadband speeds reach a perceived point of diminished return, it becomes more difficult to differentiate the customer experience on speed alone," Yohn noted. "Therefore, packaged differentiation drives deeper into applications such as rich business e-mail and collaboration, Web site solutions from a basic site to a full e-commerce solution and features such as online file storage and backup."

Commercial services is a longstanding focus for Cox, which has developed a full product portfolio of data, voice and video delivered over HFC and fiber, with revenues approaching $500 million in 2005, according to Kristine Faulkner, vice president of product marketing and management for Cox Business Services.

Going forward, several drivers will come into play, including the move toward all-IP services. Indeed, VoIP is a significant area of focus for Cox, and the idea is more businesses will divert to IP systems as more enterprise network gear moves from traditional TDM to IP systems. To prepare, Cox has to develop solid IP services, and that means breaking down the traditional service silos.

Demystifying IPTV

Identifying just what IPTV is, how it works, and who'll reap its benefits were the three dominant topics during the "Dispelling the Myths of IPTV" session.

Carla Stratfold
The message sent by panelists was that IPTV no longer is a mythical technology held exclusively by the telcos; and in fact, its value lies in its ability to deliver video over a wide range of devices—from cell phones to watches.

"The biggest myth about IPTV is that it's only a video play the telcos can deliver. But cable is already deploying it," said Carla Stratfold, senior vice president for RealNetworks Inc., noting Time Warner Cable's trial in San Diego.

But what exactly is IPTV? Panelist Paul Connolly, vice president and general manager of emerging business for Scientific-Atlanta Inc., knows what it isn't. "It's not the Internet. IPTV networks have been deployed, but at simple networks and small systems with no HD, VOD or DVR service. Phase two must be a full suite of video services and with the ability to scale," he says.

And home networks are expected to be a major factor in delivering IP video, said Joe Seidel, director of partner business development for Microsoft TV. "For a telco IPTV multi-room model to be effective, home networking is crucial," he insisted. That is not a deterrent to their deployment of IPTV, however. Adds Seidel: "They are moving forward globally and recognize how it translates to a business."

Getting an edge with VoIP

VoIP is fast becoming a valuable strategic addition to bundled services that can generate free cash flow and improve profitability with a lower cost profile than its predecessor, constant bit rate service. That was the overriding message from the "Sharpening the VoIP Edge" session.

Stan Brovont
"It [VoIP] is sticky, and the churn rates are less than any other bundle. It's a large growth engine for the future," said Stan Brovont, vice president of marketing and broadband business development for ARRIS.

The facts seem to bare that out. At Bresnan Communications, 96 percent of its phone customers take more than one service, while 71 percent take the triple play. Nearly 28 percent of its customers are new, according to Kathy Kirchner, Bresnan's general manager of telephony operations.

Obtaining that edge will continue to be a challenge, however. "Changing the employees' mindset about VoIP as a lifeline service, sales and installation processes, interconnections and consumer awareness are still challenges for VoIP deployment," Kirchner acknowledged.

Nevertheless, VoIP represents a formidable new technology and service, which will get even better, said Mark Bakies, solutions marketing, routing VP/GM for Cisco Systems Inc.

Charlotte Field
Comcast isn't slowing down with its VoIP service either, according to Charlotte Field, SVP of national communications engineering and operations for Comcast Corp.

"We look at the differentiation as critical. Isolating problems in the home and understanding the quality of calls and correlating that information is crucial," she said. Field also called on the vendor community to "work together to troubleshoot issues. We have to continuously improve."

VoIP also brings a different set of characteristics to the voice business, noted Brian Cappellani, CTO and vice president of engineering for OSS supplier Sigma Systems. "VoIP is the tip of the iceberg, with a unique set of characteristics that include a greater number of services, shorter lifecycle and personalization, and it will move to real time, session-based," he said.

Peering at the broadband horizon

What we'll be seeing from emerging technologies such as WiMax, WiBro, DOCSIS and other technologies still to come, was the topic of the "Emerging Broadband Technologies" panel discussion.

They all will lead to personal wireless broadband devices, as service providers race toward the ultimate goal of personal wireless broadband service, according to Sandy Teger, co-founder of System Dynamics Inc. "It's access to the whole system. Personal broadband is everyone's target," she said.

It's reality as well. Adds Teger: "WiBro in South Korea is deployed. It's a mobile broadband wireless version called the wonder-phone, and it's accelerating mobile WiMax in the U.S."

HomePlug and Access BPL (Broadband over Power Line) technology is advancing, as well, said Philip Poulidis, senior director of marketing for Intellon Corp.

"Broadband connectivity from any power source in the home is very appealing, and it's not a competing technology with DSL, DOCSIS and WiMax, but complementary."

DSL, a technology which got off to a relatively slow start domestically, will catch cable modems by the end of 2006, predicted Clifford Holliday, president of B&C Consulting Services. And with 40 percent of U.S. households having high-speed access, that is a significant number.

For cable, the future belongs to DOCSIS 3.0, insisted John Treece, director-cable business development for Juniper Networks. DOCSIS 3.0 "is bigger, better and faster and offers cost and operational efficiencies. It will require additional gear and more flexible network architecture, but is designed to meet the strategic needs of cable operators, enhance security, provide higher bandwidth and network management additions."

Video-on-demand technology is changing at a rapid pace as cable operators and other service providers prepare to deliver the services of tomorrow. Panelists for the "Next-Gen VOD" panel took out their crystal balls to tell the audience what they see coming down the on-demand road.

Though the VOD sector is starting to see hybrid video servers, the use of myriad storage media will only become more important as so-called "long-tail" content pours into VOD vaults, explained Steve McKay, CEO of server and software company Entone Technologies. He suggests a system that uses low performance but relatively cheap ($2 per storage hour) Serial-ATA (SATA) drives to handle the most niche content, SCSI drives for mid-range content, and RAM, which is 400 times more expensive than SATA, for only the most popular titles.

David Large
The Holy Grail of VOD has been the networked video recorder (NVR). However, there are multiple ways to approach it, noted David Large, a cable engineering vet who now runs his own consultancy, David Large Consultants Inc.

Those architectures include Record All (with shared access); Hosted Personal Space (similar to the DVR, but the hard drive is a central server), and Shared Recording On Demand (the system records only what at least one viewer wants, and access is shared).

Making some system assumptions—service groups of 2,000 homes passed with 27 percent digital penetration, for example—Large showed how much storage would be required for each model.

In the Record All mode, the system would need 400 terabytes, well inside the capability's of today's servers.

The Hosted Personal Space model turns out to be much less efficient, requiring 3,160 terabytes for a system with 800,000 homes passed and 212,800 digital subs.

The Shared Recording model, meanwhile, would require 44 terabytes, assuming that 11 percent of the programs were recorded on a short-term basis.

Time Warner Cable, meanwhile, is out in front with the NVR concept, having launched its "Start Over" service last November to digital subs in Columbia, S.C.

The MSO launched the service in November with support from 61 networks. Viewers who initiate Start Over cannot fast-forward through the advertisements, which has pleased the networks. For programmers, it's a "virtual zero cost solution," explained Bob Benya, Time Warner Cable's SVP of on-demand product management. "They send us their schedule, and we take care of the rest."

Start Over has resonated with viewers early on. According to Benya, 66 percent of digital customers with access to it used Start Over more than five times during the first two weeks it was available. Weekly VOD streams also doubled, Benya said.

Another subject covered was digital ad insertion, a technology that will help operators pay the freight for "free" video-on-demand content. "Static" ads inserted in a VOD asset are commonplace, but not the best, or most efficient, answer for the long-term. To boost the value of those ads, the industry is also trying to personalize them as much as possible and insert them on the fly.

"With the Internet, we've seen that for quite some time," said Gil Katz, Harmonic's director of cable solutions, referring to services such as Google and Amazon.com.

Personalized ad insertion brings with it both benefits and challenges. On the latter it requires solid integration between the servers, ad managers, edge QAMs and set-tops.

That challenge was the same for VOD, "but the business case here is much stronger," Katz says, noting that the case is so strong that some trials are expected in 2006.

Bandwidth management

There's no argument that bandwidth is a valuable commodity. That means you have to squeeze everything you can out of what you've got before thinking about adding anymore to the pot.

In the "Bandwidth Management" session, Kagan Research Senior Analyst Ian Olgeirson set the table with an outlook at what will drive the need for bandwidth.

One of the biggies is commercial services. In addition to offering a "souped up" version of DOCSIS, operators are also looking into wireless plant extensions, and extending fiber or utilizing existing fiber to reach larger businesses.

Other drivers include cable's bread and butter—video. This touches on everything from digital simulcast, navigation platforms with mosaic video thumbnails, and the "800-pound gorilla"—HDTV.

Data speeds, meanwhile, will only continue to rise, witnessed recently by Cablevision Systems' rollout of a symmetric 50 Mbps service. Speed "is not something that will level off anytime soon," he said.

So, what to do? Get more bang out of your existing bandwidth, for one.

Michael Adams, the vice president of video architecture & technology, digital video solutions at Terayon Communication Systems, outlined three specific tools that operators can use today: statistical multiplexing, switched broadcast and advanced video and audio coding. Each, of course, has its own set of pros and cons.

To the plus side, stat muxing technology is mature and works well with standard- and high-definition video, and operators can "groom" channels however they want to fit them on their lineups. The biggest drawback, he said, is that operators that have already enlisted it have already gleaned a 30 percent bandwidth gain from it. They'll get some small incremental gains in the future from stat muxing, but not much else.

Switched broadcast, a technique very similar to VOD and a technology that is being applied to IPTV today, can offer a virtually infinite channel lineup. One big challenge: one-way CableCARDs aren't capable of joining a switched broadcast tier.

Advanced codecs like MPEG-4 AVC are twice as efficient as MPEG-2, but offer a huge legacy hurdle for operators that have already deployed millions of MPEG-2 set-tops.

Ed Heuck
Then there's the bandwidth expansion option, a subject covered by Jeff Fryling, vice president of corporate development for Xtend Networks. Upstream problems will surface as early as 2006, driven by commercial service requirements. According to Xtend's studies, an expansion to 3 GHz would cost about $126 per home passed, below the $166 required for an expansion to 1 GHz and field node splits.

Ed Heuck, the VP of technology at Hargray Communications, concurred that there's a desperate need for more return bandwidth as his company looks at adding faster data tiers, VoIP services, and T-1 services.

Despite a move to 64 QAM, reducing node-to-laser and node-to-receiver ratios to section off bandwidth, repairing system leaks well under the FCC limit, and installing return traps on all drops, "even with all of these steps, we are still running out of return bandwidth," Heuck explained.

Cue up the 'quad-play'

Arguably the "it" service trend for cable operators these days is the addition of cellular wireless services, expanding their triple play to a quad play home run. And covering all of those bases is a challenge David Gaetani delved into with CED Senior Editor Karen Brown during "The Fantastic Four" session.

Gaetani, director of business development within Motorola Inc.'s Connected Home Solutions Group, said the idea behind bringing cellular services into the cable bundle reflects what consumers want from their communications services—specifically, they want devices that can access their services via a range of technologies. That is reflected in estimates that through 2008, the number of Wi-Fi hotspots will rise 45 percent, while cellular subscriber growth will come in at about 7.6 percent.

Service providers, meanwhile, are looking for unified networks that can deliver these unified services using any device. To that end, Motorola's seamless mobility initiative aims to knit together these as-yet separate platforms.

"To Motorola, it means you are connected at any time, anywhere, to any device," Gaetani says. "But it's not about the technology or the device. It's about the user experience."

One such product is the hybrid Wi-Fi cellular handset, which taps the broadband 802.11 network in the home, and then shifts to the larger cellular network when the user walks outside.

What's in it for consumers? Gaetani points out that such a hybrid device will lead to lower air time costs, since subscribers will be banking off the Wi-Fi network in the home "and actually have a good signal, because you are tapping Wi-Fi," he said. It also will mean one bill from one provider, which also will simplify life for the converged broadband user.

Service providers—particularly cellular carriers—also stand to benefit, Gaetani noted.

"Extending coverage using the existing Wi-Fi network in the home instead of expanding cellular coverage is a very cost-effective approach and will keep future capex lower," he said.

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