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The Broadband Fifty - December, 2007

Fri, 11/30/2007 - 7:45pm
CED staff

Building for cable’s future

We are proud to present the seventh edition of CED’s Broadband 50: the fifty most prominent companies, technologies, trends and people who defined, shaped and epitomized the broadband industry in 2007, or threaten to do so in 2008.

A long list of potential candidates is compiled by CED scribes and advisors, who discuss, argue over, weigh, bandy about, dispute, and hash over the list.

CED’s staff, supplemented by a secret panel of industry luminaries, then assesses and evaluates every candidate, voting on the relative importance of each. The votes are compiled and tallied, and the candidates are then ranked in order. Many simply do not make the cut. It’s a process.

 

1: Switched digital video saves the day!
Faster than a speeding bullet! Able to leap over large bandwidth constraints! It’s switched digital video (SDV) to the rescue for cable operators.

The first SDV trial – by Time Warner Cable in Austin, Texas – was way back in 2004, so the technology isn’t exactly brand-spanking new. But, like digital simulcast a few years ago, the technology seems to have reached the tipping point this year for cable operators who want to save precious bandwidth.

With SDV, cable operators can send just the digital signals being watched in a service group or node, instead of the entire lineup of channels. The reclaimed bandwidth goes toward HD and other digital services.

Cox Communications jumped on the SDV bandwagon this year with its first deployment using technology from BigBand in its Northern Virginia system. In November, Charter Communications announced an SDV trial in Los Angeles.

So all of the top five MSOs are in various stages with SDV. Cablevision announced the single largest SDV deployment to date earlier this year, also with BigBand, when it installed the technology across its New York City metropolitan area footprint.

Time Warner Cable is aggressively rolling out SDV since that first trial in Austin. The company’s stated goal is to have SDV in half of its divisions by the end of this year.

While Comcast has lagged a little in terms of SDV, it picked up steam in 2007 with two trials in its Denver and New Jersey systems. Those tests use Arris and Harmonic’s edgeQAMs to deliver SDV, VOD and related services over a shared infrastructure.

Cox, which is using BigBand’s third-generation edgeQAM, said it will start looking at sharing resources between SDV and VOD via edgeQAMs next year.

While other vendors are in the switched digital video space, BigBand has completed or is in the process of deploying SDV with five operators across 20 cable systems that collectively pass more than 11 million households. But this is no longer just BigBand’s game. Watch for Motorola and Scientific Atlanta to pick up steam, too. – Mike Robuck

 

2: ‘The bandwidth dance’
Look, there’s never enough bandwidth, but it seems like there’s always enough to get by. So far.

In the old days, increasing bandwidth meant upping the amplification – 330 MHz to 450 MHz, then 450 MHz to 550 MHz, then 550 MHz to 750 MHz. Maybe even some 860 MHz, and, if you’re Cox, some 1 GHz. The upper spectral boundary went up as more and more basic and pay channels joined the lineup.
But that was before HD.

Today’s competitive smack-talk for HD goes like this (over and over and over): 100 channels. Spectrally, using existing (MPEG-2) compression, that’s fifty 6-MHz channels (assuming two streams compressed to 19.2 Mbps). OK, 750 minus 550 divided by 6…oops: thirty-three 6-MHz channels in the digital domain, or 17 short of what it’d take to do 100 channels of HD, right now.

Enter “the tools in the toolbox,” which was pretty much the bandwidth story of 2005-2006: Split nodes. Statmux more aggressively. Take back analog channels. Go to 1 GHz. Use a digital video switch.

This year, the demand side of the bandwidth story got HD-crazier, and the supply side picked up a few more tools. Well, technically, one tool was sharpened, and an expected tool started to roll out (see #4).

The tool that was sharpened, at least for one MSO, was a largely overlooked member of the bandwidth preservation family: The MPEG-2 encoder. Yes, MPEG-2. Turns out there’s still some juice in that wringer, at least for the Comcast Media Center (see #46).

At press time, Comcast was actively experimenting with an unnamed encoder maker – can’t imagine who! – that aims to improve the bandwidth efficiency of MPEG-2 by 30 percent. That’s good, right now, while HDTV is still largely a volume game. But our spies say it’ll be even better in the next chapter of HD – picture quality. – Leslie Ellis

 

3: HD: More, more, more...
Nearly two decades after the modern concept of HDTV was floated, HD became hot in the consumer market in 2007. HD TV sets are selling like hotcakes. Depending on who’s providing the estimate (and estimates vary wildly), there are as many as 30 million HD sets in the U.S., and household penetration hovers near 25 percent.

The direct broadcast satellite (DBS) companies have been baiting the market with ads about all-digital and HD. DirecTV called 2007 the “year of HD” and vowed to have 100 HD channels before the year was out.

That provocation got a big response from cable. In June, Cox President Pat Esser said he’d challenged his engineering team to make 50 channels of HD available by the end of this year, and 100 channels by the end of next. Every major MSO is working toward expanding its HD lineups.

Then Verizon recently upped the ante by setting a goal of 150 HD channels on FiOS TV by the end of 2008.

The fly in the ointment: While HD may encourage migration to the digital tier, it really isn’t monetizable. Its value is all defensive – not losing subscribers with expensive new TV sets dazzled by the promise of a richer HD lineup offered by someone else.

Most cable companies were well on their way toward their year-end 2007 goals of 30, 40, or 50 HD channels, having found ways to scratch out the bandwidth (see #2).

Comcast turned the whole conversation into farce by vowing to have 800 channels of HD by the end of 2008. It arrived at that number by adding in all the on-demand HD content it’s amassing. But Comcast raises a legitimate question: in the age of SDV, what’s a “channel” anyway? So that’ll kick up some competitive heat, if only to challenge the math. –Brian Santo

 

4: MPEG-4: HBO’s inauguration
The shock value has long-since worn off, but it’s still one of the bigger video-geek stories of the year: HBO’s June bombshell, dropped during a breakfast panel at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, that it’ll transmit its upcoming 26-channel HDTV lineup exclusively in MPEG-4. As in, not in MPEG-2, the compression format known by the 50 million digital set-tops inside cable and satellite homes right now.

Somebody had to go first, if only for sheer economic necessity. Especially fitting that it was HBO, first at satellite transmission, in 1975, and first to put up an HD feed.

Transmitting its 26-channel HD lineup in MPEG-2 would’ve required HBO to find space on six or seven additional satellite transponders – double what it currently uses. Satellite transponders go for about $125,000 per month.

Once those MPEG-4-compressed streams get on the ground, though, they’re gonna need some work. Otherwise, they’re unusable by the aforementioned giant installed base of digital boxes that don’t know an MPEG-4 stream from a pumpkin.

Enter the “transcoder,” which is really more of a decoder (from MPEG-4 back to digital baseband) followed by an encoder (to re-code into MPEG-2). Piles of companies showed them at this year’s National Association of Broadcasters Show in April. As technologies go, MPEG-4 encoders are the new black (they and edgeQAMs; see #12).

HBO’s June shocker also included its stance on compression rate: 8 Mbps for HDTV (7 Mbps payload, 1 Mbps overhead). Comparatively, that’s conservative – AT&T is looking for a good 6 Mbps squeeze; vendors at NAB showed an HD stream squished as low as 4 Mbps.

By late summer, HBO quietly announced its choice of Motorola for the gear it and its customers need to receive MPEG-4 encoded and encrypted streams. It’s a pretty safe bet that more and more programmers will start announcing plans to go to MPEG-4 next year. –LE

 

5: Digital transition: Thank you, sir, may I have another...
Remember when you were a teenager, and your punishment for something you didn’t think you did in the first place was a three-day grounding – but you were half-glad about it, because it wasn’t three weeks? And – whew – you were still allowed to go on the class trip?

That’s the kind of sentiment underlying the FCC’s September decision to “let” cable operators dual-carry broadcast signals in analog and only one digital format (SD or HD) for three years after the 2009 digital transition.

In a world bulging with 100-channel promises of fat, plush HD channels, it doesn’t seem like much of a Hallelujah to be instructed to carry something in essentially three ways, for three years. It’s already job-number-one for most chief tech people to keep the plant sustainable for more HD, let alone channel bonding, and every other new service glimmer.

The Hallelujah is that the three-year passage didn’t say “perpetually,” as in forever, which had been a possible outcome. And it didn’t stipulate that operators had to carry “all content bits,” which would’ve meant skirmishes when considering things like statmuxing and re-encoding. So…um…thanks? – LE

 

6: Kevin Martin: Doesn’t hate cable. Really.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has been like Wile E. Coyote in one of those old Road Runner cartoons: Behind every rock, or standing on every overhang, Martin has been there with yet another wacky anti-cable plan.

Martin either has large cojones or a severe case of hubris, because when he appeared before the cable industry at The Cable Show ’07 this year, he proclaimed that he really doesn’t have it in for cable.

Martin’s constant tilts at the cable industry – whether it was dual carriage, a 30 percent cap on the number of Comcast subscribers, or his theory that cable networks showed too many junk food ads to kids – would almost be amusing if it weren’t for his influential position and the fact that the regulatory battles have been costly, in terms of both time and money, for the industry and the NCTA.

Martin has developed almost a fetish over a la carte pricing, despite evidence that paying for channels individually would actually cost more than the current set up of having the more popular channels carry the less popular ones.

In September, the FCC voted unanimously to require cable operators to carry local TV stations in both analog and digital formats for three years after the analog broadcasts cease on Feb. 17, 2009. Martin initially advocated for perpetual dual carriage without the three-year sunset, (see #5).

And to end the year on a bang, Martin dove deep into the Cable Communications Act of 1984 and brought up a provision that gives the FCC broad regulatory authority over cable if the industry becomes available to 70 percent of households, and 70 percent of those homes subscribe to cable.

He claims cable has exceeded both marks. NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow insisted cable serves well less than 70 percent of the nation’s households.

Rest assured that in the final days of the Bush administration, the wily Martin will have a few more tricks up his sleeve for the cable industry. –MR

 

7: Google: Like Kudzu
Google extended its reign as Internet King this year, with a few surprises and a well-known setback tacked on to its dynasty.

In November, the company’s $3.1 billion bid to acquire DoubleClick was put on hold when the European Commission refused to approve the deal on competitive grounds. Opposition to the potential deal in the U.S. focuses more on the privacy aspect of it – how much information Google can know about us and who the company can share that data with.

Then, Google roiled the mobile market by announcing its interest in buying spectrum and then introducing the Android handset. It’s preparing to bid for a slice of the 700 MHz band in the FCC’s wireless spectrum auction in January. In July, Google urged the Commission to adopt four open platforms as part of the license conditions: open applications, devices, services and networks. The FCC has decided to support two of the open access principles: applications and devices.

Over-the-air broadcasters are wary of Google’s interest in unused spectrum (within the frequencies of TV channels 2 to 51) that will likely be auctioned off by the FCC in 2009, after the digital transition. Google, as well as other Internet and wireless bigwigs, wants a chunk of broadcast’s VHF and UHF spectrum because the frequencies are also suitable for transmitting video and data wirelessly to mobile phones, PCs and TVs.

As for Android, it’s a collaborative development of Google, T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm, Motorola and other companies through the Open Handset Alliance. Google describes the Android platform as a mobile “software stack” that consists of an operating system, middleware, interface and apps. The first Android cell phones are expected to hit stores in the second half of 2008.

On the advertising side, Google established a strategic relationship with Nielsen to bring demographic data to Google TV Ads and introduced Gadget Ads, an interactive ad format. And in April, EchoStar and Google partnered up to introduce the first automated system for buying, selling, delivering and measuring TV ads on the satellite provider’s 125 national programming networks. –Traci Patterson

 

8: Business services: Flocking to MEF
The Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) was once an exclusive club for the telco operators, but that started to change last year when Cablevision’s Optimum Lightpath became the first cable operation to join the worldwide forum.

In December of last year, Arris became the 100th member of MEF, and CableLabs, Comcast, SuddenLink and Brighthouse Networks joined this past summer. MEF provides certification waves for both service provider networks and vendors’ products.

Referring to the MEF, Kristine Faulkner, vice president of product development and management for Cox Business Services, said, “It’s about providing assurances for customers that the Ethernet services we’re delivering, and the equipment we’re delivering, are compliant and attain a certain level of performance that our customers expect.”

Both telcos and cable operators are rushing in to provide Carrier Ethernet services to financial institutions, banks and other business entities. According to Infonetics Research, worldwide Ethernet services grew to $5.9 billion in 2005, and it’s expected to increase another 280 percent from 2005 to 2009 to $22.5 billion. Infonetics Research also said Carrier Ethernet switch and router manufacturer revenues grew 132 percent from 2005 to 2006 with a forecast of $9.1 billion by 2010.

Carrier Ethernet offers service providers flexible, standardized carrier-class services such as point-to-point E-Line services, which include Ethernet Private Lines, Virtual Private Lines and Ethernet Internet Access, and multipoint E-LAN services. E-LAN services include MultiPoint Layer2 VPNs and transparent LANs.

This past summer, cable operators were able to cross the MEF 14 certification line in a dead heat with some of their competitors. RCN, Optimum Lightpath and Time Warner Cable earned their MEF 14 stripes alongside AT&T, Verizon and Embarq. Lastly, Optimum Lightpath won MEF’s 2007 Regional Carrier Ethernet Service Provider of the Year award over the summer. – MR

 

9: DOCSIS 3.0: Patience please
To give you an idea of how big a deal buying more bandwidth is, this is an adjunct to the bandwidth issue, also in the top 10. DOCSIS 3.0 will increase bandwidth on the downstream (to 160 Mbps, at a minimum) and especially on the highly constrained upstream (to 120 Mbps), which will be critical as it becomes increasingly more common for subscribers to upload video.

The speed enhancements are derived largely from channel bonding. DOCSIS 3.0 will also have provisions for IPv6, and modular CMTS technology.

The development of DOCSIS 3.0 technology is supposedly on an accelerated schedule. Until a few months ago, the expectation was that the first deployments might occur in 2009, but now the first commercial rollouts may happen in 2008.

Implementing DOCSIS 3.0 is a priority, especially for cable operators who are competing with Verizon. Verizon is offering a tier at 15 Mbps upstream and 2 Mbps downstream for $49.95, which is faster than most cable operators volunteer to offer without competition, but can still match if they want to. But then Verizon is offering another at 30 Mbps/5 Mbps, seemingly just to twit cable, because at $179.95/month, Verizon can’t be expecting all that many takers.

Who needs 30 Mbps? Who knows? But it’s good to be the fastest, because when you’re the fastest, you get to say you’re the fastest. Avis got famous claiming to be number-two, but bragging about being the second fastest broadband provider is just lame.

Numerous companies – Cablevision, Comcast, Starhub (Singapore), Multikabel (The Netherlands), Videotron (Canada) among them – are experimenting, trialing, testing various aspects of DOCSIS 3.0 technology. Comcast and Virgin Media are among those on the record with plans to roll out the technology in 2008.

CableLabs began Wave 56 of testing in October; results should be available in a few days (the first week in December), but few expect any qualifications of CMTS equipment. CableLabs and the vendors involved were planning to use the session to identify interoperability concerns and to figure out what engineers need to tweak on their respective systems.

That creates an expectation that there might be qualifications as early as Wave 57, the results of which won’t be announced until the middle of March.

A commercial rollout is unlikely before the second quarter of 2008, then. And even if all goes well in Wave 57, which is far from guaranteed, and some operators jump on the opportunity, deployment of DOCSIS 3.0 technology is unlikely to become widespread until 2009. That’s the accelerated schedule.

By the way, broadband in a dozen other countries is way faster for way less money. We’re just saying. –BRS

 

10: Telco TV: VoIP, huh? Boom! In your face!
In the third quarter, competition from the telcos started affecting the cable industry’s video and broadband subscriber statistics – and their stock prices.

Comcast announced that competition from Verizon’s FiOS and AT&T’s U-verse began biting into subscriber growth in its Q3, and the stock market reacted by dinging all U.S. cable stocks, by anywhere from 5 percent to over 20 percent. Somebody’s taking this competition stuff seriously.

Verizon continues to chug along with FiOS, pretty much on plan. The company has 1.3 million FiOS TV customers (and another 200,000 or so satellite customers) as of the end of the third quarter.

AT&T reported 126,000 customers subscribing to its U-verse video services by the end of Q3, up 51,000 in just three months. AT&T has been expanding rapidly, and the company said that puts to rest any concerns about whether U-verse can scale. But the company also experienced a day-long service failure throughout its entire footprint that was never adequately explained.

AT&T also had to acknowledge that upgrading systems in the acquired BellSouth territory will cost more than expected, which will in turn slow the U-verse rollout a bit, so that AT&T will have 17 million homes passed by the end of 2008, instead of 18 million.
And of course, dozens and dozens of smaller phone companies are offering video.

The interesting thing is that the telcos are pricing their video products roughly the same as cable. The whole point of competition was that it was supposed to force prices down, wasn’t it? –BRS

 

11: OpenCable Platform: Good-bye OCAP!
As industry-sanctioned nomenclature goes, OCAP is out. At a keynote session at this year’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, NCTA Chairman Kyle McSlarrow put the big kibosh on the four-letter acronym: “I have, tongue-in-cheek, banned the term” within the NCTA, he quipped.

Let’s just say it: If you’ve ever had to say “OCAP,” with feeling, in front of a human being or a camera, you’re secretly grateful. It’s just goofy-sounding.

In its place: The OpenCable Platform. (Ooo, baby.)

OK. Five months have passed since we all started culling “OCAP” from our everyday industrial conversations. It’s a mixed bag. It used to be that “OpenCable” described the hardware side of things, and OCAP denoted the software side. Now those distinctions need to be made differently. We’re hearing a lot of “what we used to call OCAP,” but that still doesn’t make it as cool as the artist formerly known as Prince...

Meanwhile, the OpenCable Platform moved front-and-center in the NCTA’s pointed response to the FCC’s Third Notice of Proposed Rulemaking this summer (see #15). And, in headends across the U.S., digital video controllers (DNCS, in SA’s terms; DAC, in Moto’s) got outfitted to do OpenCable. The boxes are moving up in the queue, too: Time Warner Cable said last month that it’s put 150,000 of them in U.S. homes already. –LE

 

12: EdgeQAMs: Where the action is
The first family of edgeQAMs supported digital broadcast video services, the second supported VOD, and the third group of edge products added SDV to the mix.

But a new generation of Universal edgeQAMs (U-eQAMs) emerged mid-year, and the devices support the aforementioned services, as well as DOCSIS traffic. Some examples are Vecima Networks’ HyperQAM, Cisco’s RF Gateway Series, Arris’ D5 U-eQAM, BigBand Networks’ Broadband eQAM (BEQ) and C-Cor’s CHP eQAM, which C-Cor claims is the industry’s first 1GHz eQAM.

EdgeQAMs are the linchpin of switched digital video (SDV). Every operator is either using them or thinking about it. The edge devices also enable cable operators to efficiently manage bandwidth for video and high-speed Internet applications.

Part of the rationale for the edgeQAM was to alleviate the demands on CMTS resources by assuming some of the routing responsibility (read: Make it more affordable to do video-over-IP, as well as MPEG). The concept was part and parcel of the DOCSIS 3.0 approach of the modular cable modem termination system (M-CMTS), but with the U-eQAM it appears that QAM technology is becoming more sophisticated than anyone – except QAM manufacturers – might have imagined. –TP

 

13: Targeted ads/’Canoe’
First of all, it’s not an acronym. “Canoe,” in mid ’07 cable conversations, was the hush-hush advertising project that everyone seemed to know about anyway. What it is: A cross-MSO initiative to make it easier for big, national advertisers to “buy cable,” even though the nation’s major TV markets are served by different cable operators. So, in one sense, “Project Canoe” is all about interconnecting the interconnects.

It’s also about interactive advertising. No groaning, please. This isn’t clicking to buy Jennifer Aniston’s sweater. It’s more like you’re watching the car ad, and it’s a car you want, so when you see the clickable thing on the screen, and you click it (using the TV remote), you go to a longer clip, on-demand.

Status: The Canoe group issued a request for information via CableLabs in August; responses were due in September. From there, a handful of finalists will submit their big plan for how to put it together.

Oh, the name? Our spies tell us it came from a comment made by Comcast COO Steve Burke, about how all cable providers needed to be paddling in the same direction. –LE

 

14: Comcast: Obligatory
Yeah, and USC, Ohio State, Michigan and at least one of the Florida teams automatically get slots in the Top 25 NCAA Division I football polls every year. A big-time program and consistency count.

What qualifies as big-time in cable? By the third quarter, Comcast was counting 48 million homes passed, and had accrued 24 million basic subs, nearly 13 million broadband customers and 3.7 million people taking VoIP.

During the year, it acquired Patriot Media, and simplified operations by divvying up assets shared variously with Time Warner and Insight Communications.

Comcast also bought online ticketing operation Fandango, and entered a display advertising partnership with Yahoo! From an accountant’s standpoint, what cable companies do is recurring revenue from services. Remote ticket sales and online advertising both qualify.

Meanwhile, Comcast is a big force pushing DOCSIS 3.0, the OpenCable Platform, and the transition to switched digital video.

It seems like it’s barely paying attention to an effort to develop DVRs with TiVo software, and yet that’s still enough to encourage TiVo investors. OTOH, maybe Comcast is just inoculating itself from a TiVo patent infringement lawsuit (see #37 EchoStar).

Being big makes you an easy target, and toward the end of the year, Comcast became Exhibit A in a revival of the Great Net Neutrality Debate. Comcast was accused of using deep packet inspection (DPI) technology to cut off P2P file-sharing applications, which Comcast does routinely (as do other operators) in the course of its traffic management operations. The reasoning: P2P applications will simply keep trying to connect until later, when system-wide traffic diminishes and the network can handle the session – without compromising service quality for other subscribers.

But net neutrality is politics, Comcast’s rationale is nuanced, and there’s no tolerance for nuance in politics. The situation has become a PR debacle for Comcast. And because the repercussions might echo for years, it’s automatically one of the most significant events in broadband in 2007. –BRS

 

15: Two-way plug and scuffle
At press time, this topic was either going to slog into the ’08 regulatory scene, or catch fire as the hottest topic ripping into the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

What it is: The next big chapter in the ongoing duel between cable and the CE industry, over how to put one hunk of chips and software (the two-way digital set-top box) into another hunk of chips and software (the one-way digital TV set). At issue is the two-way part. The CE side wants to essentially disassemble it, in a move it calls “DCR+,” for “Digital Cable Ready Plus.” (Cable calls it “Consumer Minus.”)

This all comes down to the first screen a person sees when they turn on the set: Does it come from the cable company, or from some variation of a CE company and its partners?

At press time, a decision was anticipated by the oh-so-cable-lovin’ Federal Communications Commission about what to do with the five-year impasse between cable and consumer electronics companies over two-way.

The best possible roundup on this topic, should you have the time and inclination, is from the NCTA. (To find it, go to www.fcc.gov, click on the “search” button at the top right of the screen, scroll down to “Search for Filed Comments – ECFS” and enter in proceeding number 97-80.)

One of the many problems of this dense and trippy story is that it’s had five years to ferment. Five years of intense legal scrutiny. Every possible shot at a regulatory foothold has already been put to the test. So, no matter where you stand, everybody’s wrong, and everybody’s right.

Reminder: This puzzle went unsolved back in the pre-digital, all analog days. (Anyone remember MultiPort?) Prognosis: This one could get ugly. –LE

 

16: CableCards: Waste of time
This was the year that “7/07” became a part of cable’s lexicon as it marked the date when the era of integrated security in new set-top boxes came to a close with the dawn of CableCards last July 1.

The NCTA said this FCC mandate “is in reality a $600 million per year tax on cable customers” that gives them no direct benefits in return. To corrupt a famous speech by Winston Churchill, never in the field of human conflict was so much work done by so many to benefit so few.

Several years ago the FCC came up with a ban on integrated security as a means to let consumers buy set-top boxes and other devices at retail outlets, and also to encourage vendors other than Motorola and Scientific Atlanta to develop and sell set-top boxes.

A miniscule percentage of subscribers asked for the things when they were available as an option. But worse than being of dubious value, most of the cable industry considers the CableCard an expensive, time-wasting, clumsy solution. Worse still, CableCards are unnecessary – the situation will be better solved with downloadable conditional access (DCAS), a technology that might be deployed as early as 2009.

On the regulatory side, the FCC dragged its feet when it came to granting waivers to cable companies who were in danger of not being able to meet the July 1 deadline (see #6). Some smaller operators were granted extensions or waivers at the last minute. Comcast applied and was denied (and sued the FCC in November for taking too long to respond). Meanwhile, the not-very-small Verizon actually got a waiver.

So removable CableCards have hit the market. Comcast and Charter Communications are getting the set-top boxes with the CableCards already installed, and the boxes also have covers screwed over the CableCard slot to prevent nosey customers from pulling out the cards.

Comcast’s and Charter’s plan includes keeping each set-top box and CableCard married over their life spans so they can be tracked together. Each new CableCard set-top box now has more bar codes to scan, and then there are also bar codes for the OpenCable Platform and boxes with cable modems that also need to be accounted for, even though those services may not be enabled for some time.

Before CableCards, a Scientific Atlanta set-top box had three bar codes; now it has five, which can be multiplied by the millions of boxes that will be going through cable operators’ warehouses and billing systems.

Lastly, it’s not just the time that cable operator employees spent implementing CableCards; it’s also the other projects that had to be shelved while doing so – like, for instance, revenue-bearing technologies and services that consumers actually want. –MR

 

17: Internet TV: Here comes the flood
The first half of 2007 saw major changes in the availability and distribution of online video. More than 250 video start-ups have emerged so far, each promising a quality experience to the PC or Internet-connected STB.

Most networks currently offer their primetime programming online, on an ad-supported basis. Some are even dedicating Web sites to individual shows, such as Comedy Central’s spin-off site for “The Daily Show.” (This activity is a direct cause of the writers’ strike that commenced in November. One of the writers’ key demands is Internet royalties for shows presented on the Internet.)

Also in the limelight this year: NBC Universal’s and News Corp.’s Hulu JV. In late October, the site began private testing with select users. Hulu’s content includes full-length current and archived TV programming, as well as clips and an initial selection of feature films.

Other contenders: Vongo, which launched its Vongo 2.0 in ’07; Veoh, which in June unveiled a beta of VeohTV; and Joost, an over-the-top video service that launched in May. –TP

 

18: EPON, BPON, GPON, moo-goo-gai-PON...
Yet another adjunct of the bandwidth issue. Cable PON (passive optical network) is basically another way to get more bandwidth to subscribers; in this case, by stringing fiber to the premises.

There are many ways to deliver bandwidth, and 8 Mbps is 8 Mbps, no matter how you deliver it, just as 50 Mbps is still 50 Mbps. But marketing is still marketing, which means perception is reality. It follows that the promise of getting access via fiber sells better than access via coax. Example: Home builders are tacking an extra $10K onto the price of a new home when the home is connected by fiber.

Cable PON looks good in new builds. But in areas already served, the cable PON argument is a little less compelling. Why replace perfectly good coax when Wall Street is already breathing down your neck?

Even though the market for cable PON looks restricted to greenfields, there’s a huge number of suppliers seeking to serve it: Alloptic, Aurora Networks, Calix, CommScope, the team of Corning and Alcatel-Lucent, Hitachi Telecom, Motorola, Occam Networks, Scientific Atlanta, Wave7 Optics, and Zhone. And that’s a partial list.

Either cable PON is becoming a really big market, or there are a lot of equipment suppliers whose diversification plans might be … frustrated. To say the least. –BRS

 

19: Metered bandwidth: Just put it on my bill
It’s not happening yet. It may not ever happen. And don’t yell at us for suggesting it. OK, here it is: With online video hurtling out of nascency and into the consumer mainstream, you gotta wonder: Does the day come when – gasp! – broadband providers need to start charging for heavy users?

This is heavy, as in 80, 90 gigabytes per month of usage. To put that in perspective, that’s three (SD) movies a day, downloaded or streamed, each month. This is a guess, but, probably less than 5 percent of broadband customers are using that much bandwidth right now. Maybe way less.

But still, if you talk to the people who watch broadband usage – cable and DSL – they’re concerned. Peak broadband data usage is doubling, sometimes more than once in a year. It shows no signs of abating.
The logic of consumption-based billing goes like this: If you paid for water on a flat rate, would you ever turn your sprinklers off? Ditto for electricity.

If bandwidth metering or consumption-based billing becomes a chapter in the bandwidth story, it wouldn’t be an easy tale to convey, especially because the “speed wars” also show no signs of abating. For marketing and PR people, if this happens, it’s the Baby Ruth bar in the swimming pool. –LE

 

20: OCUR: TV on PCs
So who wants to watch “The Sopranos” on their computers? Apparently a lot of people, given the buzz the subject generated early this year at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And it’s partly why CableLabs stepped up its OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR) initiative.

OCUR will allow consumers to view scrambled digital and HD cable programming on their Microsoft Vista-enabled PCs, as well as other devices that are connected on their home networks. For now, OCUR will support one-way, or linear services, but a two-way interface is being developed. Cable-ready OCUR products also include a CableCard interface.

According to CableLabs, OCUR is like a digital cable receiver with a tuner, a CableCard interface and an IP interface. It is intended to enable multi-user, multi-room scenarios where multiple OCURs can provide digital cable audio-visual programming over an IP connection to a Home Media Server. The overall protection of the cable audio-visual programming distribution across the home network is achieved through the means of a CableLabs-approved digital rights management (DRM) system. Got all that?

In short: This is CableCard for the PC. It’s so that people can get HBO & Showtime, as well as regular channels, on their PC.

At CES, Niveus Media Inc. announced its OCUR-based Niveus Digital Cable Receiver, a box that supports hundreds of HD digital channels and connects to a Vista-enabled PC via a USB cable. The dual OCUR design lets viewers watch two channels at the same time.

Other consumer electronics manufacturers who displayed their OCUR products at CES included Microsoft, AMD, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, and Toshiba. –MR

 

21: Open media devices:PC-to-TV
There’s a flood of video programming washing through the Internet (#17), but home networking technology (#26) suitable for video hasn’t been adequately commercialized yet. Still, several companies want you to buy devices to fill the gap. There’s Apple TV, Vudu and Amazon Unbox, for starters, which hit the market in ’07 with a goal of validating the unstoppable trends of online movie downloading (OMD), the adoption of digital media adapter (DMA) technology and PC-to-TV bridging.

And cable operators should be concerned, says Michael Greeson, founding partner, president and principal analyst for The Diffusion Group (TDG). “The cable operators can’t be in denial about the Internet as a multimedia medium. It’s a powerful technology. You can’t deny its power. Now that it’s coming to the TV, it’s time to be concerned.”

And then there’s the software side. Applications from companies such as Quartics and Building B intend to bring Internet content straight to the living room. Quartics’ software solution, Blink beta, is a browser for people to view video on their PCs and, with its “PC2TV” technology, on their TVs. Building B’s service integrates traditional TV with HDTV, on-demand content and Internet video.

Open media devices and PC-to-TV apps sidestep traditional TV distribution methods. They’re available. They match the go-go nature of the Millennial generation.

Maybe it’s time to fire up those IP paths inside those advanced digital boxes (see #12). –TP

 

22: WiMAX: Mixed signals
Let’s start by acknowledging that almost every technology that Intel “evangelizes” is evangelized solely for the purpose of creating the need for more Intel silicon in PCs. WiMAX seems to be Intel’s most interesting bid for diversification in years.

Of all the wireless technologies available, WiMAX claims the highest theoretical maximum transmission speed – 70 Mbps symmetrical. Over the summer, Motorola demonstrated the technology in Chicago. WiMAX apparently works, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.

Two companies, Sprint and Clearwire, own licenses to most of the relevant spectrum. They’d planned to cooperate to form a nationwide network, but couldn’t get it together.

There are so many questions, though. Is Sprint going wobbly on WiMAX now that the technology’s in-house champion, CEO Gary Forsee, is on his way out? Can WiMAX muscle Wi-Fi out of cafés, hotels and airport lounges? Must it find a separate niche? And what about competing wireless technologies?

Cellular phone companies, through one network upgrade after another, are methodically increasing the data rates they can offer their subscribers. Other companies might bid for 700 MHz airwaves in the upcoming federal spectrum auction, and they might opt to provide competing services, possibly but not necessarily using WiMAX. –BRS

 

23: TWC: Train kept a-rollin’
Interesting times for Time Warner Cable. With Jeffrey Bewkes taking over for Dick Parsons as Time Warner CEO on Jan. 1, “every option” is open. That includes the option to reduce the parent company’s 84 percent stake in the cable company part of the business. Or, spin it off entirely.

Time Warner Cable went public in March, after finally settling the affairs of the Adelphia bankruptcy. The former Adelphia systems helped boost Time Warner Cable’s third quarter profits, but also contributed to a loss of 83,000 basic video subscribers during the summer months.

On the technology front, Time Warner Cable continued to leverage its former Mystro technology in the form of Start Over, which allows customers to go back to the beginning of a show during a limited time frame. Start Over won an Emmy for the company, and Time Warner Cable’s goal was to have it in 18 markets by year’s end. The company started experimenting with Look Back this fall, which will allow viewers a longer time frame to view selected shows that aired earlier that day without using their DVRs.

Plus, the MSO leads the pack in switched digital video deployments – to the tune of SDV in half of its divisions by year-end.–MR

 

24: Cox: TCOB, dude
Cox is smack dab in the middle of all of the trends at the top of the Broadband 50. It was cable’s champion for HD (#3), with CEO Pat Esser vowing in June to offer consumers 50 HD channels by year’s end, and 100 by the close of 2008.

The company also took the lead – along with Cablevision and Time Warner Cable – on deploying switched digital video (SDV) technology (#1) in 2007, with an initial deployment in its Northern Virginia market.

At Cox, those two tacks – HD and SDV – are related. Cox’s solution to the dilemma of finding the space to provide more and more bandwidth-sucking HD content is two-fold; Deploy SDV, and build out to 1 GHz. (Ah, the joys of going private.)

Also, underscoring how important business services (#8) are to the cable industry, Cox became the number-four supplier of Ethernet services in the U.S. business market, according to Vertical Systems Group, which made the determination. Cox was the first MSO ever to crack the Top 5 in that category. –BRS

 

25: Arris snags C-Cor
Arris wasn’t able to wrench Tandberg Television out of Ericsson’s grip earlier this year, but it did catch C-Cor for $730 million. The deal, which is expected to close Jan. 1, contains little product overlap. That’s good. The combined entities of Arris and C-Cor will create a company with more than $1.2 billion in annual sales. That’s big.

Arris gains a broader base to compete with mega companies like Cisco/Scientific Atlanta, but some analysts think the combined portfolios of Arris and C-Cor could also be attractive to other buyers – including Ericsson or Alcatel. The mind reels. –MR

 

26: Home networking: For multiroom
Cable networks end at any of a number of terminals: a PC, a set-top, a TV. But what about customers who want to distribute the services they get from cable to other TVs in the house, other PCs, other set-tops, to audio equipment, to mobile devices, other… other? Wi-Fi is great until you get to video.

A laundry list of standards groups are on the task: MoCA, HomePNA, Ethernet, HomePlug, and UPA, plus the Ultrawideband (UWB) technology being pushed by silicon design specialist Pulse~Link....There’s still no clear winner yet, and if they’re all being deployed, home networks can get as tangled, figuratively speaking, as the wires behind your home entertainment center. –BRS

 

27: Retrans: Serious pencil sharpening
One of the things people on the engineering side always notice about people on the programming/content side is the surfeit of swag: From the film festivals to the stuffed animals. Well, they’re earning it now. Figuring out retransmission consent, cutting interactive deals, finding ways to clear off analog channels – in a landscape often bounded by 15-year exclusive contracts – makes doing programming deals harder than ever. In short: MSOs and content owners are at an all-time crazy. –LE

 

28: PacketCable 2.0: Learning to crawl
PacketCable 2.0, which is based largely on IMS and SIP, may not be ready for deployment in the near term, but this year it started taking baby steps.

CableLabs completed the first successful interoperability event for PacketCable 2.0 in August, at its PacketCable Application Lab. That first interop focused on pre-PacketCable 2.0 IMS core networks, voice clients and voice application servers.

According to CableLabs, the weeklong session, held at the end of August, achieved an impressive level of interoperability for SIP-based voice services across equipment combinations from 10 different participating manufacturers. Included in the testing was voice interoperability with PacketCable 1.5. –MR

 

29: Interactive TV: On the cusp again
The interactive television (iTV) camp never seems to have an unbeleagured year, and 2007 was no exception. As momentum built toward broadband video and Internet TV, the iTVers persisted and led TV viewing toward a more personalized, interactive, Web-like experience.

ICTV launched its ActiveVideo technology. ActiveVideo Channels allow network operators and programmers to deliver a personalized broadband experience that includes video, navigational elements, targeted and interactive banner advertisements, and links to different video segments.

Navic Networks unleashed a new service that enables TV viewers, using their remote controls, to request that digital coupons and product information be sent through an SMS message to their mobile phone.

And Ensequence was busy with iTV apps for Bravo’s “Top Chef 3 Miami” and Nike’s “Quick is Deadly” integrated marketing campaign.

But if the TV industry is really truly serious about targeted advertising – if – then it is also interested in more sophisticated advertising, and that finally bodes some true success for some interactive companies in 2008. –TP

 

30: CableLabs: The straw that stirs the drink
It bears repeating: the cable industry is successful largely because it understands, values, and supports standards. CableLabs is the embodiment of that.

All of the cable industry’s most important new technological advances – DOCSIS 3.0, the OpenCable Platform, PacketCable Multimedia, OCUR, the Canoe interactive advertising project, and the other DPI (digital program insertion) – are standards-based efforts. With each of them, CableLabs is either helping to coordinate the standards development process or is managing conformance testing.

As CableLabs enters its 20th anniversary year, its engineers continue to toil away quietly (OK, there are nondisclosure contracts involved, but still), making sure all those groovy whiz bang things you’re going to introduce in the next 24 months work. Hey, next time you see an employee from CableLabs, give him a hug. Or, ask for a piece of anniversary cake. –BRS

 

31: Cablevision: Buy this company, already
Operationally speaking, Cablevision – the last big family-owned cable operator – is rock solid. High penetration of digital subscribers. Transitioning to switched digital. Going boffo with Ethernet-based business services. The attempt at network storage DVR (see #36) was a rare stumble. And of course, the company operates in the lucrative New York metro area.

So when the controlling Dolan family attempted to take the company private with a bid of $36 a share…well, that dog didn’t hunt. But if the company is now in play, you’d think somebody would swoop in and pick it up.

Then again, maybe everybody’s scared of taking on responsibility for the Knicks… –BRS

 

32: Malone: Sports/ DBS magnate?
John Malone, the cable pioneer at the former Tele-Communications Inc., is getting into the satellite business? Horrors! But it’s true. Malone is a dish-head, once his $11 billion swap with News Corp. is completed. Malone’s Liberty Media will get a 38.5 percent controlling stake in DirecTV, the largest satellite company in the country, and three local Fox sports channels once the deal passes regulatory muster.

Malone and Liberty also are in the process of picking up the Atlanta Braves and other assets from Time Warner in return for giving up 60 million of Liberty’s 170 million shares in Time Warner. –MR

 

33: MediaFLO: Changing the game
That 700 MHz thing – ring any bells? There’s a spectrum license auction in January, and that’s the portion of the airwaves up for grabs. For some – Sprint and Google come to mind – competing with Verizon in mobile video is the subtext of the upcoming auction.

And then there’s Qualcomm’s MediaFLO technology, which operates in the (surprise!) 700 MHz spectrum. And, it has the chops to stream video. Verizon jumped on it in 2005 and is using it as the basis for its V Cast service, which is worming its way into users’ viewing habits. –TP

 

34: Video search: When Google isn’t the answer
Maybe you already knew this, but we didn’t: A slew of Internet-side companies are out with ways to search for video on the Web. In other words, finding episodes of “Project Runway” isn’t necessarily a matter of going to Google and typing in the words. Companies like BlinkX, CastTV, ClipBlast, and Truveo are focused solely on helping people find video on the Web. Check it out. –LE

 

35: Motorola: Shopping spree
Motorola didn’t rest on its laurels after buying Broadbus last year. In April, the company boosted its portfolio with a $140 million cash purchase of Terayon Communication Systems, yanking it away from offers by Harmonic and Cisco Systems. With the buy, Motorola gets a statmux, in Terayon’s “Cherrypicker,” plus other hardware and software products. But mostly a statmux.

In July, Motorola signed a definitive agreement to acquire privately-held Leapstone Systems, which counts AT&T and Verizon Wireless among its customers. Leapstone is a communications software developer that provides a unified platform for creating and delivering converged voice, video and data service bundles across multiple devices and networks. (Uh-huh.) Then in the summer, Motorola bought Modulus Video, which makes MPEG-4 AVC
systems (see #4.) –MR

 

36: Network DVR: Nice try
Memory just keeps getting cheaper, which means that for service providers, the cost of storing their subscribers’ e-mail, documents, and photos keeps getting lower. So it isn’t much of an intuitive leap to offer to store subscribers’ video programs for them. Right?

Cablevision called the approach “remote storage DVR.” To customers, the service would act almost exactly like using a DVR. But from the service provider’s point-of-view, there wouldn’t be any expensive DVRs full of moving parts that can fail at any time installed in customers’ homes.

It was a simple, elegant idea. Cablevision ran the notion by many of the parties involved, and it seemed acceptable. Then they tried to actually implement the concept, and kaboom! Broadcast networks and film studios turned on them like Heather on Sir Paul. All of a sudden, detractors of the RS-DVR decided the system would violate copyright. They only had to convince one judge. And they did.Startover is legal, though. –BRS

 

37: EchoStar: Don’t hear a thing
EchoStar’s presence in the Broadband 50 is explained by one key question: What is going on with this company?

Snapping up Sling Media (for about $380 million) was a gutsy move. But can EchoStar do anything new with Sling technology? An ugly precedent is eBay’s acquisition of Skype. From the start, Skype’s value to eBay was thoroughly speculative, and eBay is still speculating.

Perhaps buying SlingMedia was EchoStar’s hedge against losing its appeal of the patent infringement suit brought against it by TiVo, which continues to grind on.

And will AT&T choose EchoStar as its sole DBS partner, or will it choose DirecTV? Will AT&T buy EchoStar or DirecTV?

And what is the deal with splitting the company in two? That can’t be an end-game maneuver. Where’s a crystal ball when you need one? –BRS

 

38: Exec shuffle
In a nutshell, here are the moves of the movers-and-shakers in ’07: Tony Werner came home, in essence, when he left his position as Liberty Media’s CTO to become Comcast’s CTO this year. In a previous life, Werner was CTO of the John Malone-led TCI before those assets were sold to AT&T and then eventually sold again to Comcast. Werner, who also had a brief stint at Qwest Communications, replaced David Fellows as Comcast’s CTO.

Former Charter CTO Wayne Davis went to the other side this year: CEO of Vyyo. Vyyo also named former Time Warner Cable CTO and recent Cable Hall of Fame inductee Jim Chiddix as vice chairman of its board of directors. Former Nortel exec Steve Slattery was given the helm at Camiant.

CEOs stepping down included Dick Parsons at Time Warner, Gary Forsee at Sprint, and Krish Prabhu at Tellabs. Motorola CEO Ed Zander still has a job, though dissident investor Carl Icahn is calling for his head.

OK, we probably forgot some of you. Apologies in advance. –MR

 

39: NCTA: Against all odds
The organization couldn’t have presented a more lucid argument against separable security, and when that fell on deaf ears, it argued on behalf of its members for a schedule delay and also for waivers. No go.

Then there was the threat that after the digital transition in 2009, the FCC might have forced MSOs to forever transmit three versions of some must-carry stations (analog, SD, and HD). The NCTA managed to get triple-carry down to dual-carry, and forever to three years. Then it went to bat for smaller ops, backing up the American Cable Association when the ACA complained that dual-carry could kill many small operators.

Some might take the NCTA to task for losing so frequently, but it’s hard to win when your destiny is in the hands of people determined to bring you down (see #6). Faced with overwhelming opposition, even the Spartans at Thermopylae eventually lost. –BRS

 

40: Sprint/ cable: On the rocks
It would appear that the joint venture with Sprint Nextel and four MSOs could be going as stale as that holiday fruitcake that comes in the mail.

Sprint Nextel CEO Paul Saleh said the company was going to stop the rollout of the mobile phone service, which is called Pivot, at its current 33 markets. The service already launched in some systems run by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse Networks and Cox Communications. During Sprint’s third-quarter earnings call, Saleh complained Pivot “is still very complex to provision.”

When the JV was first announced two years ago, it was supposed to help deliver wireline and wireless services to approximately 41 million customers that were served by the four largest cable companies as well as to Sprint’s nearly 46 million wireless subscribers. And it was a three-year contract. –MR

 

41: Three-screen strategies
Viewers are already viewing video on TVs, PCs and mobile devices, but usually from three (or more) different services. It’s a matter of time before consumers start demanding to receive whatever channels they pay for from a single service on any device. Getting there is the hard part.

For now, being able to program your DVR from a PC is gaining speed, but some skeptics wonder if consumers will actually buy in to the transfer of video to any screen.

Nonetheless, the supplier community is stepping up. Synacor, for instance, provides a sort of “dashboard” for MSO Web video services, including DVR features. It’s ultimately a window to all products and services, including the PC and cellular phone. The first and easiest place for this interconnection to occur is with TV listings, but the next step is the ability to program your DVR from the portal, and any on-demand, PPV or other pay-to-view purchases can be tied in to the cable operator’s billing system.

And ExtendMedia’s OpenCase digital content services platform is taking on the skeptics. The platform helps cable operators and telcos maximize the value of video syndication so that they can offer video apps to any screen – PCs, mobile phones, portable devices and TVs. –TP

 

42: Ericsson: Winner of Tandberg
Arris tendered an offer for Tandberg, but Ericsson swept in with a sweeter, $1.4 billion offer. Guess who won? Ericsson, neck-deep in IMS and SIP, gets TV-oriented Tandberg – itself on a buying spree for the past year-and-a-half.

Tandberg’s GoldPocket acquisition, as one example, gives Ericsson entry into advanced advertising. Then there’s the compression and video encoding product lines. And, it’s on pretty solid ground in terms of cable and telco service providers. –MR

 

43: Internet advertising
In the battle for dominance in the online advertising world, Google continues to be the self-described “800-pound gorilla.” This year, the Internet King Kong introduced Gadget Ads – which enable advertisers to target audiences via regular updates within the ad unit – and attempted to acquire DoubleClick for $3.1 billion. (At press time, that one’s still in limbo.)

Meanwhile, Yahoo! got tied up with some … ahem … personnel issues. In June, Yahoo’s former CEO, Terry Semel, resigned, and Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, was appointed to the position. Semel’s resignation was a relief to some board members and investors who thought the company was too sluggish in the online ad category. Oh, and the sagging stock price.

Microsoft, which trails Google and Yahoo for search market share and advertising revenue, purchased a huge chunk of Facebook – and gained worldwide rights to sell banner and display ads on the site. It also swept up digital services agency aQuantive (for a whopping $6 billion, for Microsoft’s biggest-ever buy). And then there’s the one that keeps coming around about Microsoft buying Yahoo.

AOL gave its all this year, acquiring four ad-related companies: Quigo, a site- and content-targeted online ad company; Third Screen Media, a mobile ad player; Adtech AG, an ad-serving platform; and Tacoda, a behavioral targeting company. Also, in September, AOL formed Platform-A, a digital display ad platform that reaches more than 91 percent of the online audience. –TP

 

44: Video gaming
TV gaming can be considered the next step up from video-on-demand (VOD). It’s also a different way to
engage consumers, a technology void of boxes to hook up or buy, and a ubiquitous market. Games can be tied in with TV content, and a solid advertising platform could make them ad-supported, and thus free.

The TV gaming technology is being deployed similarly to OCAP, and OCAP-standard games can hit 50 million households with minimal effort. Once the games are developed, cable operators can bring them to the masses. –TP

 

45: The stock scene: Vicissitudinous
The big stock newswas BigBand Networks’ IPO, the first cable equipment vendor to go public in a dog’s age. Being a public company is not all funds and games, though. The stock opened at $15.25, but as of mid-November had been trading around $6. BigBand was boosted by their reputation as the go-to guys for switched digital video, and so far, they are.

But they also couldn’t do much with the CMTS line they bought from ADC. CMTS might have had some strategic value, but investors refuse to eat strategic value, so goodbye Cuda. (So then what happens when those switches and edgeQAMs need to support DOCSIS traffic? Just askin’.)

Time Warner spun out Time Warner Cable (#23) as a separate stock, while the Dolan family tried to take Cablevision private. The Dolans failed in part because the $36 per share bid undervalued the company. Ironically, Cablevision’s stock subsequently dropped by about $10 a share. “Undervalued”? Ha! We’ll show you undervalued.

At the end of the year, investors turned on the entire cable industry after being reminded of two things they already knew: 1) the economy appears to be slowing down, and 2) the telcos are competing in video. –BRS

 

46: CMC: Industryasset
The Comcast Media Center, located in a Denver suburb, is a 305,000-square foot labyrinth that does everything from provide high-end production facilities to distributing custom video assets around the country via satellite. Nowadays, it goes by “CMC,” but most of you probably remember it as “HITS,” for “Headend in the Sky.”

Increasingly, the CMC is Comcast’s keystone for video distribution of all kinds. Besides itself, it serves than 400 MSOs operating more than 3,000 regional and standalone cable headends. The CMC offers “VOD in a box” for smaller cable operators as well as a Video-Rich Navigation Program that parent company Comcast uses in conjunction with its GuideWorks IPG. CMC also developed a three-channels-in-one QAM product that can give cable operators a 50 percent increase in space for their HD programming. –MR

 

47: Microsoft Xbox – a STB?
In July, it was determined that feature films from The Walt Disney Studios would be available to members of Xbox Live Marketplace, the online games and entertainment network on Xbox 360.

And in November, Microsoft said that SD and HD full-length games, TV shows and video game programming from ESPN would also come to Xbox Live. Vongo content is also available on the TV via the Xbox 360.

Currently offering more than 3,200 hours of entertainment content from more than 30 studios and networks, Xbox Live is the only online service offering downloadable movies and TV shows in HD. Could this fun-loving box be the STB’s undoing? –TP

 

48: Data tracking
Advertisers want the most precise data they can get about who’s seeing their stuff. That’s the common denominator for any number of seemingly disparate trends, including the explosion in Web advertising (where click-through can be closely tracked), the proliferation of targeted ad systems for cable, and the derision of Nielsen numbers.

Companies that can compile and present accurate data are golden right now. That includes Rentrak and Everstream. It may even explain the revenue persistence of TiVo, which hasn’t sold that many units when you get right down to it. –BRS

 

49: Harmonic: These guys want it
That’s a quote from an exec who’d been evaluating various companies’ edgeQAMs earlier this year. “This is a company that is focused.”

In the past year, Harmonic announced new business with RCN, TVN, ComSpan, SES Americom, Portugal Telecom, and DirecTV, among others.

The company was included in the Emmy that Time Warner Cable received for its Start Over service, and it got the first perfect scores for products ever granted by Broadband Gear Report in its Diamond Technology Reviews.

Harmonic is confident that its acquisition of Rhozet and its transcoding technology is going to lead to some very big things. –BRS

 

50: Audio codecs
One of the benefits of PacketCable Multimedia is the plan to add new codecs for improved audio performance. The tricky part is implementing codecs that work in the current environment, while also leaving room down the road for improved algorithms. Boil it all down, and it means this: Better audio for all of us losing our hearing because we’re blasting the iPods too loud. –MR

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