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Cable: Refracted through QAMs

Fri, 02/29/2008 - 7:40pm
CED staff

Some emerging technologies at ET ’08 technically have already emerged

The 2008 edition of the SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies offered plenty for cable operators to look forward to years from now, including the possible deployment of 4G wireless broadband technologies, a suggestion for what DOCSIS 4.0 might be, and proposals for next-generation networks – a generation beyond the last next-generation network, that is.

But the bulk of ET ’08 was dedicated to a future that’s months away, rather than years. In fact, some of the technologies discussed were not just imminent but already extant; they included DOCSIS 3.0, IPv6, edge QAMs, and switched digital video (SDV).

A good chunk of the proceedings were dedicated to ways of making sure those technologies will be used optimally; to that end, there were sessions on OSS/BSS systems and measuring product quality.

Meanwhile, whole tracks were devoted to applications made possible by technologies now being tested and trialed, if not actually deployed, specifically advertising and other personalized services.

Paul Kagan
Kagan

QAM again? 
The prelude to ET ’08 was Paul Kagan’s “QAM Before the Storm” seminar. While last year’s event set the table in terms of what technologies and services the cable industry needed to focus on, Paul Kagan said at this year’s event that it was time to put those technologies and services to work.

“Everything is ready, the solutions work, the subscribers want them and the competition is growing, so the time is now,” said Kagan. “Last year we weren’t ready, but now is the time.”

The prerequisite for every operator, though, is having enough bandwidth.

“Bandwidth expansion is the most important story for all of the players,” Kagan said.

David Brown, Motorola’s director of strategic marketing, video access, enumerated the services and technologies compounding the demands on available bandwidth: targeted advertising, content on-demand, different content, such as HD, and content mobility. HD is the most significant bandwidth-consumer in the near term.

Brown compared bandwidth needs to an expanding and contracting waistline, and said while the lines between VOD, switched digital video, broadcast and Start Over would begin to blur, all of them need more bandwidth.

Switched digital video ripens
As cable operators work to meet consumers’ demand for more HD channels and HD VOD streams, as well as competing against telco and satellite operators’ growing HD channel lineups, switched digital video is becoming even more prevalent this year.

Switched digital video sends just the programming that people in a service group or node are watching instead of the entire slate of channels, and while the technology also holds promise for sharing bandwidth resources between video silos such as VOD and SDV, SDV’s big impact this year is reclaiming bandwidth in order to allow MSOs to deploy more HD channels.

Greg Hardy, Scientific Atlanta’s vice president of video development, said switching HD channels, instead of the long tail content that was previously typical in SDV deployments, would be big for cable operators over the next few years.

“It’s not just recovering bandwidth, but delivering HD,” Hardy said of SDV.

Hardy said that while SDV was a great technology, cable operators need to be very mindful of the size of the service groups where channels are being switched. MSOs can add more QAMs, but Hardy said the best bang for the buck was doing node splits.

The panel also discussed the time frame of going from an SDV multicast model to SDV unicast. Unicast would allow targeted advertising to be sent directly to a single viewer in a home, but the cost of having a tuner for each TV in a household would make unicast prohibitive in the near term.

Cable operators need to find a logical migration from multicast, to smaller microcasts before reaching unicast, but BigBand Networks chief cable architect Doug Jones said advertising revenues will spur the migration along.

While some in the cable industry point to unicast services as a way to free up bandwidth, Motorola’s Brown didn’t think it would be the “endgame” because if most subscribers in a service group watch the same shows at the same time, such as the Super Bowl or “Desperate Housewives,” it would make unicast signals to each home unnecessary.

Charles Cheevers
Cheevers

Arris’ Charles Cheevers, CTO, Europe, said within two years he expects to see more sharing of bandwidth between SDV and VOD services via edge resource managers (ERMs), followed by those services sharing bandwidth with broadband services over unified ERMs. Cheevers predicted by 2015 there would be 61 channels mapping in and out of SDV, and that unicast will be deployed in an on-demand mode.

Advertising: present and future
Advertising was well-represented in Los Angeles, both in the Paul Kagan pre-conference event and during an ET session.

During the “Advanced Advertising Technology: Driving the Next Growth Engine” session at ET ’08, the panelists and moderator took a look at what cable needs to do in order to stop advertising revenues from bleeding off to the Internet.

“The goal is really simple: How [do] we increase cable’s share of [the] ad business,” said Arthur Orduna, Advance/New House Communications senior vice president, policy and product, and the session’s moderator. “The final tenet, from an MSO perspective, is this is not a tomorrow thing; this is a yesterday thing. We have to begin now.”

Currently, broadcast advertising accounts for $70 billion of the advertising revenue pie, with cable’s spot advertising slice at $5 billion. The opportunity for cable is to come up with a standardized platform that will allow MSOs to sell, track and profit on the new platform with broadcast networks, cable networks and ad agencies, in order to eat into the Internet ad revenues of $19 billion.

“Traditional TV advertising is under siege,” said John Morrow, Scientific Atlanta’s vice president, strategy and business development. “This is a call on the industry to engage our broadcast network and cable partners to usher in a new area of advanced advertising.”

During the Kagan event, Comcast Spotlight vice president of technology Paul Woidke said the cable industry and newspapers are losing a combined $12 million a day in advertising revenue to the Internet, but that can change with the advent of addressable advertising.

Paul Woidke
Woidke

“Addressable advertising is the most important component of advanced advertising,” Woidke said. “Addressable advertising is the single enhanced advertising technique that cable can deliver with greater precision, accuracy and value to advertisers than the Internet.”

In order to win over those Internet ad dollars, cable needs to provide a system that replicates some of the best online features, most notably accountability and reporting, and campaign management.

Morrow said cable has one advantage over the Internet because it’s a preferred form of viewing by consumers, but it needs to marry that viewing experience with the best tools from Internet ad campaigns.

The SCTE’s DVS 629, which will soon be officially known as SCTE 130, will be a big part of building a unified platform for addressable advertising. SCTE 130 is an XML-based tool that will work in traditional cable advertising deployments as well as the expanded opportunities on a unified platform.

In short, SCTE 130 provides inventory and placement definitions. It also brings together content and subscriber meta data for targeting zones, or in a unicast environment, individuals to bring the right ad to the right consumer at the right time. From an ad agency point-of-view, ad placements across a wide area and precision measurements are desirable elements of SCTE 130.

Rapid Application Delivery Panel
The “Rapid Application Delivery” panel
linked back office systems with service quality management.

The SCTE advertising panel also featured Vincent Dureau, who is Google’s head of TV technology and a former OpenTV executive. Dureau spoke about how ad sales automation can benefit cable operators, including the fact that it’s compatible with MSOs’ current legacy infrastructure.

“I think TV is a unique medium because it creates emotion and that’s important to advertisers,” Dureau said.

The Internet is better than cable at matching ads to the people who are the most receptive to them. The key, according to Dureau, is matching the emotion of TV with the addressability of direct advertising and the reporting tools of the Internet.

What cable lacks is a common platform to deploy advertisements across multiple MSO footprints, which is what cable’s Project Canoe is attempting to address.

“There needs to be a common standard for ease of deployment and a distributed architecture for scalability,” Dureau said. “That sounds like the Internet.”

Woidke said despite limitations, such as the memory capabilities of legacy set-top boxes, there have been noteworthy strides in recent advertising trials, but the cable industry will ultimately need switched unicast for significant addressable advertising deployments.

“In the last 12 months, the industry has moved forward more than the whole time I’ve been in the business,” said Woidke, who has more than 15 years in the cable advertising business.

Cable’s Evolution Panel
The “Cable’s Evolution” panel discussed technologies that could play a significant
role in the near future, including 4G wireless broadband and cable PON.

4G, 4.0, NGN again
The ET session “Cable’s Evolution to the Hyperconnected Network” lived up to the conference’s stated goal of looking at technologies that could play a significant role three to five years down the road.

Survey data shows that consumers already desire mobile broadband capabilities that are unlikely to be available until 4G wireless technology is deployed, Nortel VP Alan Pritchard said. Cable is defining a mobile broadband play through the PacketCable initiative, he said, and the basic technology candidates are WiMAX, LTE and UMB.

Dave Hartrum and Steve Frederick from Motorola observed that cable customers are already figuring out ways to integrate their mobile phones with their home networks. The good news, they said, is that cable owns the most triple play customers, and that HFC networks are perhaps the most suitable for integrating mobile broadband technologies.

Those two presentations established that consumers are creating a demand that cable can supply. The next, from TWC VP of wireless services Mike Roudi, established that this isn’t simply an opportunity – there’s also competitive pressure coming from all of the major cellular companies compelling cable to add wireless broadband to the bundle.

There’s no doubt that all-optical networking is superior – where it can be affordably deployed, which for MSOs tends to be in greenfield builds and plant upgrades.

At ET ’07 last year, Alon Bernstein of Cisco Systems explained that in such circumstances, cable operators can profitably migrate to a passive optical network (PON) architecture, and overlay DOCSIS management and a DOCSIS back office system on top.

Bernstein was back at ET ’08, furthering the case, this time with co-author Steve Gorsch of PMC-Sierra.

Bernstein, Cisco’s software architect, followed up on his presentation last year at ET by going into more detail on how to overlay DOCSIS management and back office systems on top of a PON. The system Bernstein proposed would appear as a CMTS to the back office system, while also appearing as an optical line termination (OLT) to the optical network unit.

They propose that standards would have to be developed for DOCSIS services (e.g., video, registration, dynamic service provisioning, etc.) on PON, and those standards could be the basis of DOCSIS 4.0. A question is whether operators will eventually upgrade their entire networks to PON or not.

CableLabs’ Sandeep Sharma, senior architect, PacketCable, followed Bernstein with a presentation on how to transition to IPv6 in PacketCable networks.

“In short, IPv4 and IPv6 will co-exist for some foreseeable time in the future, so we need to look at a transition strategy,” Sharma said. DOCSIS 3.0 and PacketCable 2.0 will be key in making the transition from IPv4 addresses to IPv6 addresses.

DOCSIS 3.0 is the IPv6 foundation for the cable network, while PacketCable 2.0 enables IPv6 support for real-time communications providing interworking between IP versions, Sharma said.

BigBand Networks chief architect Doug Jones discussed how cable operators will need edge resource management tools to share bandwidth resources between silos, such as video and data, and to deploy new services. Jones outlined the differences between global session resource management and edge resource management, but said cable operators will need both to share resources across universal edge QAMs.

Scopus CTO Adi Bonen and Harmonic’s Gil Katz, director, cable solutions and strategy, discussed HectoQAMs during their segment of the panel.

“More and more, the problem is not just the capex but also opex growth,” Bonen said of today’s environment. “Every edge QAM you add makes the network more difficult and costly to maintain, especially when adding another service.”

Bonen said the HectoQAM improves both capex and opex for cable operators. HectoQAMs consolidate all QAM channels in the cable lineup to a single device and single port, supporting multiple protocols that are required for applications such as SDV, modular CMTS, VOD and broadcast. Cable operators can save money because the HectoQAM consumes an order of magnitude less power per QAM channel, and with almost as big an improvement in cost per QAM.

PON or not, networks could get smarter. Time Warner Cable’s senior director of video systems Glen Hardin, along with co-author Ramin Farassat, VP of marketing at RGB Networks, proposed a “cognizant and intelligent” network.

The network they described relies on watermarking as a means of tracking content throughout the system and an evolution in the way the network handles content to take advantage of the benefit of watermarking everything. The authors propose that cable operators borrow a trick from the Web and introduce video universal resource locators (v-URL). The combination means that the network will be aware of what the content being transmitted is, which in turn means operators will be able to make intelligent decisions to assure delivery of services.

Kshitij Kumar
Kumar

During the “Cable 3.0: Personalizing Services Beyond Web 2.0” session, panelist Kshitij Kumar, the president and CEO of TellyTopia, told the audience about his 10-year-old son who had asked to subscribe to Club Penguin, an online virtual world for kids.

“Are you willing to give up something for it?,” Kumar had asked him, and his son had replied, “Yes, TV.”

The interactive, on-demand, community-based world of the Internet is a tough competitor for cable, especially when it comes to the younger generations.

Traditional cable competitors include satellite and IPTV providers, but new, emerging competitors are over-the-top content providers – both PC-based (YouTube, Hulu, MySpace, Joost and BitTorrent) and TV-based (PC-to-TV connection, media extenders, Internet-connected STBs and TVs).

But the Internet can’t switch TV programming from the television to an iPhone, and it doesn’t have the thick pipe and the lean-back experience that cable offers, Kumar said.

The point of Cable 3.0 is not to replicate the Internet on the TV, the panelists assured the audience. The point is to offer consumers premium content, Internet content and personal content, not only on the TV, but on other platforms as well – to offer a “blending” of services.

“There’s value beyond Web 2.0 for the cable world,” said panelist Jack Kozik, the CTO and director of IMS application architecture for Alcatel-Lucent.

Subscribers have multiple devices, networks and applications, Kozik said, and in a hyperconnected world, cable operators can plug in to that by offering a blend of the broadcast, Web and phone worlds. “Service blending is a critical function,” he said.

Applications that are possible from the blending include Caller ID on TV with call handling, remote parental control, family tracker (where consumers can see where family members’ cell phones are) and multi-domain emergency alerting (where consumers are alerted if their child dials 911 via a STB, phone and/or the Web, and can then tell their child’s location via the remote control).

Cable 3.0 Panel
The “Cable 3.0” panel discussed
new emerging cable competitors – over-the-topcontent providers.

But how do we get cool-looking stuff like this – as well as 3D graphics and personalization – on the TV screen?, asked Steve Calzone, a principal systems architect for Cox Communications. And then he answered: We start with open platforms.

What the industry needs is open service infrastructures, open protocols, open languages, open operating systems, open programming, open interfaces, and content protection and security domains, he said. The industry needs to upgrade to stay competitive – upgrade devices, infrastructure, platforms and intelligent peripherals (smart phones, home networking).

Paul Kagan asked the panelists about the word “upgrade.” Can we realistically expect cable to embrace this upgrade, he asked, and how much are they willing to accept, and how soon?

Kagan suggested that most of the upgrading that needs to be done now can coincide with new applications. And as for selling it to Wall Street, his advice was that cable operators are not simply keeping subscribers, they are enhancing their user experience, and you can’t just give away new applications.

And the new applications are very intriguing: personalized homepages on the TV; playlists, friends (similar to MySpace) and communities on the TV; a video search engine on the TV. And these applications lend themselves to new advertising opportunities, including interactive ads and overlays.

“Only the best features and the ones that make sense will come to the TV,” Kumar said. And as far as winning subscribers back, Kumar said this requires network-based PC-TV (nPC-TV) integration, interactivity, user-generated content, long-tail content, communities, content sharing and, most importantly, letting consumers know that “cable gets it.”

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