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The Web is the stage

Sun, 12/31/2006 - 7:00pm
CED Staff

The Internet was once again the delivery mechanism for CED's third-annual Cable Television & Broadband Expo, a "virtual" trade show. The confab ran Dec. 6-7, 2006.

Provided here is coverage of each session, but if you missed it last month, the entire show is archived on the Web at www.cableandbroadbandexpo.com.

The triple-play, plus one

The business structure has changed, competition is picking up and technical issues remain, but the addition of a wireless service to the successful deployment of the triple play of video, voice and data services for a "quadruple play" is gaining momentum.

"The triple play worked well for us in 2001, so we thought: what other services can we offer? We tried roaming with our wireless service but it was a big problem to get the billing system to do it. But it's working now. And, we added caller ID to the TV, which customers absolutely love," said Ed Heuck, CTO for Hargray Communications. RCN Corp. has also gotten into the game, recently launching a pilot in the Boston region.

"We knew competition was coming, so we trialed wireless in September in Boston with CloseCall America," said Mark Chinn, vice president of marketing and product management for RCN. "We made sure the RCN wireless brand was present on all packaging, phones, customer interaction, invoices and Web site. The results were overwhelmingly positive, and we are testing other offers as well. We wanted to test several offers versus isolated wireless discount offerings. We found that the quad-play is stickier with customers," Chinn says.

And the quad-play is becoming stickier with more service providers, particularly through the joint venture between Sprint, Comcast, Advance/Newhouse, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable.

Kevin Packingham
Kevin Packingham
"The quad-play and JV is an opportunity for us to collaborate on these services. There are lots of products we can leverage with network capabilities for a seamless experience. MSOs have shown great success with the bundles, so we want to extend the customer profile," maintained Kevin Packingham, vice president of product development for the Sprint/MSO Joint Venture.

In the meantime, Sprint plans to release a series of related products, Packingham adds. They include elements such as customized handset themes, mobile e-mail and broadband, and "MSO TV."

'Seven-oh-Seven' deadline looms

Another panel discussion shined the spotlight on an important deadline that is on the horizon for U.S. cable operators of all sizes–the July 1, 2007 ban on set-tops with embedded security.

Paul Glist
Paul Glist
Paul Glist, a partner with Cole, Raywid & Braverman, set the stage by providing a history lesson on the matter, noting that the 1996 Telecom Act includes an FCC-directed provision designed to assure the commercial availability of set-tops and other navigation devices from retail sources. That then was tied into the cable industry's ongoing project for separating the conditional access system–OpenCable and the Point of Deployment (POD) module, now called the CableCARD. The cable industry went on to begin offering PODs by the initial July 1, 2000 requirement.

The FCC, however, took things a step further by prohibiting operators from providing set-tops with integrated security after a period of five years, hence the coming 2007 deadline.

That decision was made, Glist explained, because the FCC was worried that the cable industry wouldn't make CableCARDs work unless they had to rely on it themselves.

The cable industry has since appealed the decision to no avail thus far (at least by late-December 2006), lamenting the high costs of the CableCARD and required re-engineering work.

The cable industry is also working on a more elegant and flexible downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) that is viewed as a possible replacement for the CableCARD.

The ban "is a very big and unprecedented event; it changes how we operate," said Mike Hayashi, senior vice president of advanced engineering and technology at Time Warner Cable. As for DCAS, "we really can't count on that being there on July 2007," he said.

Cross-platform content full of opportunities and challenges

More and more, video is being broken down, redistributed and made available for different consumer devices and screen sizes, running the spectrum from broadcast, linear HD for giant TVs, to standard video-on-demand, streaming to PCs, and delivery to cell phones and other handhelds.

The Comcast Media Center (CMC) knows this challenge well, as it prepares and delivers thousands of hours of VOD per month for cable operators, as well as live and clip-based content for mobile phones, and video for streaming in formats such as Flash, Windows Media and Real.

Mitch Weinraub
Mitch Weinraub
But when preparing that content, one must give special attention to how the experience will be for the consumer based on the different screen sizes involved, said Mitch Weinraub, senior director of new media initiatives and implementation at the CMC.

For example, average viewing time tends to differ by platform–less than 5 minutes for the cell phone, less than 8 minutes for the PC, and less than 15 minutes for cable video-on-demand, which suggests that users are more apt to sample content than to stick around for a 30-minute or 60-minute program.

Given these realities, it is "unrealistic" to think that content providers will create fare for just one type of screen, Weinraub said. Instead, they'll start with core content and leverage it for all devices and platforms.

Another company in the middle of this trend is thePlatform, a digital media publishing company that Comcast purchased in July 2006.

One trend is clear: volume for cross-platform publishing is skyrocketing. thePlatform handled 1 billion media requests in 2005, and expected to double that number by the end of 2006, according to VP of Business Development Rahul Sonnad.

One content supplier that has seen complexity increase rapidly due to new platforms and services is Starz Entertainment, which, in addition to a range of linear premium broadcast channels, operates a cable VOD service and two Internet-based services: Starz Ticket (in partnership with Real) and, more recently, Vongo.

"The launch of IP services has dramatically changed the way we prepare and encode content for delivery," said Ray Milius, Starz Entertainment's SVP of programming operations.

All-in, Milius listed more than 25 formats in use by Starz today, including various flavors of Avid, MPEG-2, Real Windows Media, VC-1, and Flash.

"You quickly discover that it doesn't scale well," Milius said, noting that if Starz continued to encode with dedicated hardware, it would require six full-time encoders just to keep up with the workflow required for Vongo.

To remedy the situation, Starz developed "Media-Forge," an automated, software-based encoding system that prepares content based on specific business rules.

nDVR emerging as valuable cable and consumer service

The network DVR (nDVR) is emerging as the next step in viewing and audience building and is addressing the consumer trend of watching media when and where they want. It's also providing a great opportunity not only for user engagement, but with cable's multi-service offerings.

Bob Benya
Bob Benya
One of the first examples of the nDVR, the Time Warner Cable (TWC) Start Over application, allows viewers to re-start a show already in progress, and has been effective with consumers, said Bob Benya, senior vice president of on demand and interactive television for TWC.

"It's helped generate over 75 million minutes of incremental viewing and a substantial amount of VOD growth. And it's driving more digital set-top boxes. We are also working with the Nielsen Group to integrate a unique video tracking system. It has really hit the sweet spot with content owners and networks," he said.

And the sweet spot for a growing number of other content providers as well. "Video content is predominant, but music and game content is growing. We'll see nDVR spread to PCs and maybe even to mobile phones, so having scalability and availability is important," maintained Kip Compton, senior director of video and IP development for Cisco Systems, which recently expanded its foray into VOD with the purchase of Arroyo Video Systems.

The nDVR isn't free of issues, however. "There are issues such as content rights, encoding and bandwidth, but there are targeted advertising opportunities and some success stories like Time Warner Cable. If you have VOD, you're ready for nDVR," said Basil Badawiyeh, vice president of on demand strategy for C-COR.

Despite some pesky issues, more operators are likely to follow TWC's lead with nDVR, the panelists maintained. And rightfully so. Concluded Benya: "One thing we feel very good about is the nDVR usage patterns. With Start Over, we're seeing a more balanced viewing pattern during the week. It's helping to smooth out the use and efficiency of bandwidth."

OCAP prep confirms progress, challenges

OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform) is working its way into the deployment stage at a growing number of cable systems and creating new applications that will not only lead to next-generation platforms such as digital advertising and mobile connectivity, but new revenue streams that are bound to follow.

Yet there remain a number of preparatory steps that need to be addressed first.

Rick Rioboli
Rick Rioboli
"We must make sure it is a scalable system and the EPG performs across all of the software stacks, and we need to do further development on the specs," said Rick Rioboli, vice president of engineering and development for Comcast.

Many of the remaining issues in integrating OCAP applications into cable networks are being addressed, and solved, however. "Our phase one development is complete and we are now working through the integration and testing phases. Phase two will be to develop the Aspen code," he noted.

Comcast, he added, will have completed its initial technical trials across four systems by the end of 2006, with no DVR. Phase two will migrate the four systems to the Aspen code base, which upgrades the service library and allows expansion of OCAP-ready coverage with a majority of Comcast systems.

For Motorola, the strategy for OCAP is four-fold: seamless mobility through OCAP; actively engage in producing a solution for advanced set-top boxes and integrate OCAP into platforms; support whole-home DVR and drive it over OCAP; and provide an OCAP software development kit.

The key, however, is home networking. "Home networking specs are still immature, so we want to provide whole-home DVR applications in 2007. And, we believe seamless mobility will be a key driver," said Rick Loechler, senior product marketing manager for Motorola connected home solutions.

But what's really driving the migration toward a specified middleware, said Don Dulchinos, senior vice president of advanced platforms for CableLabs, is the work being done by the players in the OCAP space. "I'm very impressed with how these people are making OCAP real. The design they're building is getting OCAP off the ground."

Internet Mobility

More and more cities are installing wireless networks for a variety of reasons. Municipalities want coverage for economic development–to attract and retain residents and businesses, for workforce optimization, and on the public safety side, the desire is for unified data access for first responders, plus remote monitoring.

Kai Mao, principal product manager at Fujitsu Network Communications, cited statistics from Muniwireless.com that spending on municipal wireless networks in the U.S. is expected to rapidly grow from approximately $250 million by the end of 2006 to $5 billion by the end of 2009.

The configuration of the network will depend largely on cost, deployment requirements, bandwidth requirements, and capacity requirements. In fact, anyone catering to the municipal market should expect to use different types of wireless access (e.g., Wi-Fi, WiMAX, cellular) in order to provide appropriate coverage in different segments within the entire coverage area, Mao explained. That is why planning the network is absolutely critical, Mao said.

Dave Park, vice president of product marketing at BelAir Networks, outlined the three types of mesh networks that are available.

The first is single-radio mesh, putting a single radio per node. All nodes are the same frequency. The backhaul is a shared channel, which results in low system capacity. In a dual radio mesh there are two antennas per node, and backhaul is on a separate, second channel. Backhaul is still a shared medium. The third option is a multi-radio switched mesh.

This configuration provides the greatest capacity, and is most appropriate for the wireless triple play. Capacity delivered could range from 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps per square mile.

Louise Wasilewski, vice president of business development at Narad Networks, addressed the opportunities for cable operators in backhaul, including backhaul for Wi-Fi hotspot networks, Wi-Fi mesh networks, and WiMax mesh networks.

DOCSIS is being used today to backhaul mesh traffic, she said. Cable has the advantage of running on coax, which is virtually ubiquitous. Radios can be powered off the plant–a huge advantage cable has.

Perchance to stream–via the set-top

Cable vendors, chipmakers and operators alike are moving ahead with strategies that will enable set-tops to bond downstream channels and create a fat pipe for video that will complement traditional MPEG delivery of digital video.

Jim Strothman
Jim Strothman
In the session called "Put that in your set-top–and stream it!," Chris Dinallo, VP of technology at Pace Micro; and Jim Strothman, director of product strategy and management at Scientific Atlanta, discussed how IPTV is dependent on getting modems into set-tops, and what else you can do with a set-top with an embedded modem.

Dinallo explained there is a large market already of IP video on the Internet. There are, he said, about 1,300 channels available via the Internet.

The best way for telcos to provide video is to do it via IPTV, because they have the data pipeline with DSL. Cable is also well-positioned to provide IPTV, given that most operators have an IP-based backbone, complemented with the IP-based data service.

There are three delivery approaches. The advantage of broadcast is that you can reach the greatest number of potential viewers with a single broadcast. But as you increase channels, you consume an increasing amount of bandwidth.

Another option is multicast in which you can target subsets of viewers, segment the market, and thus save bandwidth, but it requires intelligent networks.

The last is unicast, but each stream is a separate copy, and therefore can also consume network bandwidth if you're sending the same content to a large number of subscribers.

It is still best to create IP video using MPEG, Dinallo said. One way for cable operators to deliver it is to combine it in a DOCSIS stream, which, he explained, naturally leads to hybrid set-top boxes that incorporate DOCSIS modems. Dinallo went on to say that hybrid boxes with DSL modems would work just as well for delivering IPTV.

Jim Strothman talked about some of the mechanisms that make it possible to deliver IPTV hybrid set-tops.

One key is the DOCSIS Set-top Gateway (DSG), a means of transmitting and receiving signaling to and from the set-top in a DOCSIS-based channel, rather than through a channel carried on the video infrastructure.

Once hybrid set-tops are available, they then become a vehicle for more than just IPTV, Strothman explained. If you can deliver IPTV to the TV, you can deliver any IP-based content to that screen, and indeed, you can deliver IP-based content to any device attached to or communicating with that set-top or, as Strothman called it, "many services to many screens."

Those many services might include streaming media from the Web, games, access to personal content, or something else entirely.

The anatomy of the M-CMTS

Another panel tackled the significance and piece part of the modular cable modem termination system (M-CMTS), an emerging platform that will enable operators to mix and match QAMs and share those resources for data and video services.

Doug Jones
Doug Jones
The role of the CMTS has changed significantly since the early 1990s, when it supported Web browsing, e-mail and other relatively simple Internet apps, and operators were required to use more downstream than upstream bandwidth, explained Doug Jones, BigBand Networks' chief architect, cable. But an update to the system was clearly needed as more bandwidth intensive apps emerged such as digital photo sharing, peer-to-peer, IP video and over-the-top voice offerings from the likes of Vonage and Skype.

Although the integrated CMTS did the job for the early days of DOCSIS, it was clear that several of its elements needed to be decoupled in order to provide the necessary scale. The components that needed to become modular included the Layer 2/3 packet processing, DOCSIS packet processing, and upstream and downstream bandwidth. They are all connected via a GigE connection.

But that also brings about special challenges, including how to keep proper time among the components, offered Jeremy Bennington, business development manager with Symmetricom Inc. In the new architecture, each module of the M-CMTS must be synchronized so that they appear as one device to the cable modem. The DOCSIS Timing Interface (DTI) was created to handle this, supporting a timing accuracy threshold of about 5 nanoseconds.

Spec work on the M-CMTS began in 2004. CableLabs has since issued the specs, several field trials are currently underway, and deployments are beckoning in 2007.

Another key piece of the new architecture is the edge resource manager (ERM), which enables the sharing of resources, including DOCSIS, broadcast video, video-on-demand and even switched broadcast.

This will also enable operators to shift QAM resources based on usage patterns during a given day, said Michael Cookish, director of product management for Motorola Connected Home Solutions, which recently expanded into the ERM sector via its acquisition of a company called Vertasent LLC.

 

Talking tech with Charter's Marwan Fawaz

Marwan Fawaz
Marwan Fawaz
To kick off the show, Marwan Farwaz, CTO and executive vice president at Charter Communications, discussed the MSO's most pressing issues and priorities with Independent Analyst and CED contributor Leslie Ellis. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

On Charter's priorities:

Fawaz: "First, we are ramping up to drive the bundle, which we are already past the mid-way point with digital products. Second, bandwidth management strategies, with simulcast being our top priority. And third, we want to help our operations scale our products with back office and provisioning. It's very important for us to improve our management system for cross platform applications and improve the customer experience."

On the most urgent items related to the July 1, 2007 set-top ban:

Fawaz: "Charter filed for a waiver from the FCC for low-end boxes, but we haven't heard anything yet, so it's challenging because we're in dual-mode planning. If we receive the waiver, we can re-adjust. But in the meantime, it's a challenge on how to deplete existing set-top boxes."

On OCAP preparations:

Fawaz: "There are two markets for our first launch and we're upgrading our back office and controls. There are subtle differences between our systems, so we are concentrating on version control and integration. We're also working to drive OCAP with our partners to additional markets. By 2009, all markets will be OCAP-ready."

On plans for bandwidth management:

Fawaz: "That is a concern. When we touch the network, we must make sure we don't do it in an intrusive way. The maintenance window is shrinking and we must mine the bandwidth we have today. We want to look at switched digital video and advanced codecs."

On the state of competition:

Fawaz: "There are more players on the video side, so now the focus is on the bundle. If you have it, you have a significant advantage. Verizon's FiOS is in our market as a competitor, but it has slowed down, and we have parity with fiber-to-the-home and with consumers. We must make sure we have that parity."

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