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It's the End of Cable As We Know It (And We Feel Fine)

Wed, 04/30/2008 - 8:45pm
Brian Santo, CED Editor

Cable has become so much more than video, to the benefit of MSOs and subscribers alike.

We’ve been asking the cable industry’s CTOs about bandwidth for years, and by now, we’re confident the industry can and will buy bandwidth as it needs, when it needs. So we decided to skip ahead a bit and ask how much longer cable companies will be cable companies?

After all, MSOs offer a palette of services beyond video, including data, telephony, business services and mobile services. Meanwhile, everyone’s networks are converging on a handful of common standards and protocols. From the consumer standpoint, there’s less and less of a distinction between a cable company and a telephone company.

The chief technology officers joining us this year are, in alphabetical order, Chris Bowick of Cox Communications, Marwan Fawaz of Charter Communications, and Tony Werner of Comcast. The article was assembled from live interviews and written comments, and edited a bit for length by CED Editor Brian Santo.

CED: Gentlemen – Are we witnessing the end of cable as we know it?

Bowick: I’ve been saying publicly for years that we should quit calling ourselves “cable” companies; we’re so much more than that. For the last several years, Cox has publicly described itself as a “multi-service broadband communications and entertainment company.”

We’ve been in the residential and commercial telephone business for well over 10 years now, and have been in the high-speed data business for just as long.

We’ve recently entered the wireless business and there’s more to come on that front. Stay tuned for a great ride.

Fawaz: I would rephrase the question, actually reverse it. The phone companies are getting into the video business to compete with us.

The cable industry has gone through dramatic changes in the past 10 years. Consumers historically associated cable with video, but clearly, that has changed. You have only to look at statistics on telephony and on HSI. Consumers understand that their communications and entertainment needs can be fulfilled by the same company. There are two major wired providers, both offering more than just a single product.

Chris Bowick - Cox CommunicationsBowick: Look, I’m an engineer, so I’m not the best guy in the world to ask about the brand value of cable, but frankly, I’ve always thought that “cable,” as an industry, has historically had a bad rap with its reputation because of its poor history of customer service. I think that’s changed tremendously through the years, but the legacy stigma continues.

Werner: Certainly our product mix is moving toward that of a full communications company. Cable is, however, becoming synonymous with complete communications, so whether it gets dropped or not is probably less important than our industry continuing to innovate and provide new services.

CED: Are there two evolutions going on in cable technology, one facing the consumer, the other facing the network at large?

Fawaz: You have an IP-centric evolution, which takes advantage of HFC. The two key elements there are DOCSIS and PacketCable.

We’ve converged transport to the edge. From the edge to the home, that’s where the product diverges from one operator to another. We’ll see convergence go all the way to the home, some day. How fast we do that will be based on the success of advanced product deployment.

The beauty of HFC is that it is built for evolution. Look at our competitors – they must deploy disruptive upgrades. All we have to do is augment and upgrade what we built 10 years ago. The spectrum is there, and how much bandwidth we make out of it, that’s up to us.

Werner: We employ a converged IP core network for voice, video and data. The next step really starts to use PC 2.0 to deliver services cross platform. So the investment that we have made in the core network can be converted into new services for the customers.

CED: We’ve been talking about ways to increase bandwidth for years; any consensus on the best ways to buy more bandwidth?

Bowick: Again, this is one of those areas where there is no “right” answer as to the specific order in which any of us will deploy certain technologies to optimize the bandwidth that our very-capable HFC networks provide for us now, and will continue to provide for us in the future.

The important thing is that we do have a number of tools in the tool chest that will ensure that HFC will continue to provide all of the bandwidth we’ll ever need, and will do so gracefully in an evolutionary approach that allows us to deploy any required bandwidth “just-in-time” whenever, and wherever we need it – without the need to rip-out everything and start from scratch with FTTP.

The tools include: Driving fiber deeper with node splits and service group reductions; using multiple carriers for Cox HSI and VoIP; higher-order modulation formats; switched digital video; bandwidth expansion to 1 GHz, etc. At Cox, we’re making use of all of the tools available to us on an as-needed basis.

We’re certainly not bandwidth scarce today. And we certainly won’t be in the future either. Because in our case, it’s really more about bandwidth allocation than it is about scarcity. Most of our spectrum is allocated to analog video today. As we begin to migrate that spectrum to digital, on a channel by channel basis (again just-in-time, not a wholesale switch-out), we gain back bandwidth on a 10x-12x basis – and maybe even more.

If we allocate all of our bandwidth to digital, we’re talking about 5 to 6 Gbps of digital bandwidth available into the home.

This huge amount of digital spectrum, when combined with node sizes continuing to decrease over time, along with all of the other tools mentioned earlier, makes for a very powerful combination that will put us in excellent shape for the future.

Werner: Again, it depends a lot on the specific system, what its current digital penetration is, how many must-carries, node sizes, etc. The good news is that we have several tools that can be used to increase our effective bandwidth, and the even better news is that most of these are complementary to each other.

CED: Some of the graybeards in cable joke that RF is going away. Is it?

Fawaz: Think of RF as the physical layer of the cable network. That’s how data and voice are delivered to the home. Marwan Fawaz - Charter CommunicationsEven with DSL and wireless networks, some components of RF engineering remain.

It’s not a question of RF engineers versus IP engineers. We still need both. RF never goes away. It’s all about how you aggregate things. We’ve got video in a silo, data in a silo – and these silos are converging, but as long as we have coax, cable will still rely on the basics of RF.

Werner: Clearly, RF never goes away. That said, our business at one time was mainly RF; today, it is much more complicated, and as such we need a variety of skill sets.

CED: Flip the question – Is the new blood showing up with adequate familiarity with RF?

Werner: I think so, but it is always a challenge to keep the correct knowledge mixture on board.

CED: Ten years ago or so, with everyone moving to the HFC architecture, the entire cable industry had a common roadmap. Does the industry still have a common roadmap?

Fawaz: We still have common standards on which we all collaborate and we make sure the standards are consistently applied. DOCSIS, PacketCable, and Tru2way are the foundational level of that. So there’s still commonality.

We are all at different starting points, and differing competitive situations. One MSO may be more aggressively pushing higher digital video penetration while another may push expansion of bandwidth more than its peers. To some, it may seem as though there are MSOs that diverge from the rest, but we share all the same fundamentals; just different timing. Our common roadmap leads us all to collaborate through CableLabs.

Bowick: The important thing is that the industry is developing, agreeing on, and deploying these common standards, and frankly, I think the industry is working closer than ever before in the development of new and evolving standards to support the next generation of products and services. The work on standardization continues and will continue with the advanced advertising (Canoe) initiative, VoIP peering, and wireless.

More and more, with the introduction of the next generation of integrated cross-platform products and services (across our video, voice, data, and wireless platforms), the need for the industry to develop the platform standards that will be necessary to share these new services amongst MSOs, and their respective customer bases, will be critical.

I’m convinced that the industry is and will continue to work together

CED: You guys have successfully kept the details about Canoe quiet, which leaves people to speculate, and some are guessing that Canoe will be an exceedingly ambitious project. Here’s a chance to help get expectations in line with what Tony Werner - ComcastCanoe will actually be. So – what can you tell us about Canoe, and what technologies it will encompass?

Werner: More will come out on Canoe, but I think it has actually been a very measured approach to deploying wide scale next-generation advertising technologies and services. We have already made several announcements, so I don’t think that we want to make any news here. The thing that is important is that we are sticking to standards-based solutions wherever possible for signaling and data models.

CED: Operators are consolidating, and so are suppliers. Cause for concern?

Fawaz: Consolidation on the supplier side has significant benefits for cable. They achieve efficiencies, and they pass the savings from those efficiencies on to us, just as we do when we bundle the products we offer – we achieve certain efficiencies with the bundle, and we can pass them on to our customers.

The key is that consolidation cannot be at the expense of innovation. When we talk to our suppliers, we remind them that innovation cannot be sacrificed. We make sure our suppliers continue to invest in development.

CED: There are, by one estimate, 17,000 people in the U.S. subscribing to 100 Mbps data on FTTH systems. Who needs that much bandwidth? Any cause for alarm?

Fawaz: No, that’s encouraging. There’s probably a similar number of people subscribing to 100 meg service with HFC and DOCSIS – most of that’s international and soon, you’ll see that product in the North American footprint. We’ll all get there. It’s just a matter of time.

ISP traffic is increasing at more than 50 percent every year. So it is not so far-fetched to see 100 meg product becoming the norm in five or 10 years, and we expect our customers will find exciting ways to use that capacity.

We can do it today, if we want, but I think you asked the right question – do we really need it?

We have the DOCSIS 3.0 technology available now, the technology is stable, albeit in pre-certified mode right now, but we expect modem certifications very soon.

Bowick: At Cox, we plan to deploy DOCSIS 3.0 in several of our markets later this year, after the modems are certified. The technology will certainly provide the capability of going to those types of speeds, but the real question we have to ask ourselves is when we should make it available to our customers as an optional tier. You might, for example, see us deploy DOCSIS 3.0 capability in several markets, and begin to trial it in a few – and actually flip the switch and turn it on in just a couple of markets where we think we need those speeds in order to remain competitive.

Werner: I think cable will start to match that claim in certain systems next year. We just announced 50 Mbps service in Minneapolis. For the short term, 100 Mbps is a marketing advantage – in the longer term, who knows? People didn’t need 1 Mbps when we first started delivering it.

CED: What’s the mobility play for cable? How soon?

Fawaz: Our focus is on growing Charter Telephone where there’s a lot of potential for growth. We continue to be engaged in dialogue about what our MSO colleagues are doing. We believe the best play will be around enhanced broadband connectivity.

The wireless industry is moving to 4G – WiMAX or LTE, and we’ll see applications develop that take advantage of that. Whether it’s mobile video, or better surfing on mobile devices, we’ll see MSOs play in this space.

CED: How do MSOs have to augment/enhance/upgrade their networks to prepare for mobility?
Fawaz: The most important area is back office solutions, like billing, to support mobility. There’s little we need to do to our wired network. The key will be support of mobile applications in the back office – that’s the biggest area of development and preparation.

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