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Gearing up for the stretch run

Mon, 07/31/2006 - 8:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor-in-Chief

With another National Show and Cable-Tec Expo now behind us, here are a few of the trends we'll be keeping a close eye on for the balance of 2006.

Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner
Editor-In-Chief
Conditional Access: Although this subject can seem mundane, the way it will be applied soon will have huge ramifications for future digital cable services. Looming in the not-so-distant future is an FCC mandate that, starting in July 2007, will ban U.S. cable operators from purchasing digital set-tops with integrated security. Already, operators across the nation are noodling how to time this shift properly so that they can begin to introduce CableCARD-capable boxes without stranding stacks of boxes with embedded security. Although the removable CableCARD is the answer for the moment, the cable industry continues to move inexorably toward the long-term answer: Downloadable Conditional Access (DCAS). While NGNA LLC–the venture launched by Cox, Comcast and Time Warner Cable to look at requirements for next-generation network architectures–started the DCAS ball rolling, where the ball goes from here is in the hands of a newly-named company (stay tuned) that is also under a new formal management team.

Pre-DOCSIS 3.0 channel bonding: While most of the speed pressure faced by cable operators is happening outside the U.S., demands to widen the data pipe are starting to seep into domestic markets. Even if the DOCSIS 2.0b moniker doesn't end up sticking, cable operators that plan to offer downstream channel bonding with proprietary technologies will also be looking for some basic interoperability support.

HDTV and HDVOD: Two developments could have a real effect on cable HDTV strategies: DBS service expansions, and hi-def DVD technologies. In the first, EchoStar and DirecTV are trying to trump what they can't do (real-time VOD) with something they can do, and possibly do very well (expand their HDTV lineups). While cable had to respond to DBS channel tonnage in the early part of the decade with digital SD channels, that may again happen, as more and more programmers come forward with hi-def simulcast or HD-only offerings. This trend will also be fed by Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, two competing formats that will expand consumer adoption of hi-def sets and displays and cause consumers to seek out HD content. This will apply pressure on cable operators to compete and stretch their own HD-VOD libraries. Comcast already is. Look for others to do the same.

Bandwidth: The public industry consensus appears to be that MSOs have plenty of tools to use before they need to think about expanding bandwidth. JetBroadband announced it would go to 1 GHz, but it is making the jump from a relatively meager 450 MHz, so that does not qualify as much of a trend-setter. We're still waiting for that watershed moment when a major North American cable operator becomes the first to upgrade its existing 750 MHz or 860 MHz to 1 GHz (or more) to beef up residential services. How operators treat greenfields will also be intriguing. Will they launch state-of-the-art 1 GHz-plus HFC plant in those situations, or will they do what CableOne did in Rio Rancho, N.M., and decide to give FTTP a go?

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