Brushing the Dust Off PacketCable 2.0 and IMS

Sun, 02/28/2010 - 7:50pm
Brian Santo, Editor-in-Chief

Current field trials presage modest PC 2.0 activity in 2011

The PacketCable 2.0 specification seemed to have been languishing unused for so long that it was open to question whether it would ever be dusted off.

But now several technical trials are said to be in progress, and if all goes well, the industry might even see some limited market trials before the end of the year.

Some vendors of equipment that supports the PacketCable 2.0 (PC 2.0) spec say that a few MSOs have bids issued that should lead to initial purchases sometime in the third quarter of this year.

That would enable that same small handful of MSOs to start deploying the technology starting in 2011. But even if they do, their deployments are likely to be modest.

The 2.0 version of PacketCable has been kicking around since 2007, and from the beginning, even its advocates expected it to be at least a couple of years before it caught on.

It was never going to be an immediate priority for anybody, in large part because it isn’t the basis for any major new service, as DOCSIS 1.0 was for Internet access, or as the original PacketCable spec was for VoIP telephony on a DOCSIS network.

Nor is PC 2.0 going to be the basis of any major applications. Several not unimportant applications, but nothing on the order of, say, targeted advertising. Nor will the envisioned applications have much potential to bring in significantly more revenue, in contrast to, for example, hosted business services.

To compound the issue, taking full advantage of PC 2.0 is dependent on some significant infrastructure changes – the types of changes that don’t happen unless other options have lost their luster.

In short, deploying PC 2.0 requires not insignificant expenditures in exchange for return on investment (ROI) that is questionable at best.

Working in PC 2.0’s favor is that other options are beginning, slowly, to lose their luster.

PC 2.0 is based on two standard technologies: SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem).

SIP is a signaling protocol for establishing voice and video calls over IP networks. IMS, meanwhile, describes a means of bridging fixed-line networks and wireless networks. PacketCable 2.0 is often described as a means to achieve fixed-mobile convergence (FMC).

In an IMS network, the access layer and service layer are mediated by a control layer.

Applications are therefore independent of the access network, and so they can function across different types of services. Applications will be resident on application servers placed in the network.

Today, new applications are introduced one at a time, and the deployment tends to be a custom or semi-custom job tied to a specific network.

Camille Issa, director of MSO business development at Metaswitch Networks, explained that the use of application servers that are not dependent on specific transport networks will allow operators to build additional applications while leveraging the equipment they already have in place. Add PacketCable 2.0, he said during a presentation at the SCTE Canadian Summit, “and you can introduce applications at a much faster pace.”

PacketCable 2.0, then, is a means to converge voice, video, data and mobility applications in DOCSIS-based cable networks, and to do it in such a manner that service velocity can be increased.

Caller ID on TV is the shining example of convergence. Now imagine more applications that similarly bridge heretofore separate services, introduced easily at a much more rapid pace.

Once operators migrate from parallel platforms for delivering multiple services to an IMS structure, operators will have more flexibility to converge applications, as well.

But that migration is an infrastructure issue, and that’s not something any operator is going to take on if they can still get some traction out of installing one-off products like Caller ID on TV.

“Nobody would deploy an IMS architecture just to save money,” said Cedar Point Communications vice president of marketing Jeff Walker. “There’s significant capex involved. There has to be a powerful reason to do it. The reasons are to generate more ARPU, attract new customers and hold off over-the-top providers.”

So there isn’t an immediate economic impetus to move to IMS and PC 2.0. MSOs will do it when it becomes clear that their best option for growth is moving to IMS and PC 2.0 – or if failing to do so will lead to shrinkage.

Over-the-top service providers might create a competitive impetus to migrate toward IMS and PC 2.0. Issa pointed out how quickly Google has been adding widgets to its personalized iGoogle pages. It’s a simple matter, he explained, for Google to add click-to-call, for example. An easy telephony app on Google would be hard to compete with.

Walker agreed that MSOs might move toward converged networks, IMS and PC 2.0 when they start losing business because they don’t have it. “They’ll do it when they need to be competitive against Google or FiOS,” he said. “They’ve tried to do converged services in a siloed environment, and they’re beginning to realize that’s difficult and cumbersome.”

MSOs aren’t anywhere near hitting a wall with that approach, but, Walker said, they are waking up to the value of IMS and PC 2.0.

The applications that can be created might not be enormous moneymakers, but they’ll have value all the same, explained Walker, who used the term “fused services” to distinguish combined applications in a post-PC 2.0 world versus converged services in a pre-PC 2.0 world.

“Fused services will protect against churn,” he said. “When telephony applications become obvious across the PC and the TV, it’s hard to churn because the value is in keeping the bundle.”

Walker said Cedar Point has participated in CableLabs’ interops and is fielding several of the bids from MSOs. Most, he said, are looking to support residential services rather than commercial services.

PacketCable 2.0 supports multiple services, and Walker says that’s being borne out in the different bids from the different MSOs. They’re covering current services, as well as newer ones, including both traditional cellular and WiMAX services.

The initial foray that MSOs make into PC 2.0 is very likely going to be distributing E-DVAs to launch residential SIP.

CableLabs last fall certified the first two PacketCable 2.0 devices, one each from Thomson and Ubee Interactive (formerly Ambit).

The products are both embedded digital voice adapters. E-DVAs are similar to an E-MTA, but they go a step further: They’re devices that integrate a DOCSIS cable modem and a SIP phone client.

Currently, if you plug a phone into an E-MTA, there are multiple analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversions as your voice gets translated by your phone and then fed to your E-MTA. What an E-DVA does is let you eliminate everything after that initial A/D conversion. The process is much more efficient and less prone to compromises in signal quality.

DHG546 E-DVA Gateway

Brad Sparks is director of business development for North American cable at Technicolor (formerly Thomson). Asked if the CableLabs certifications were a signal or a sign that MSOs are looking for such equipment, Sparks explained that the certification had more to do with proving Thomson’s PC 2.0 prowess than anything else. “We got our ticket punched; we can show operators, ‘Hey, we know what we’re doing.’”

Even so, he said, “We’re working tightly with a couple of key operators that have the intention to start moving toward the SIP domain, which is PacketCable 2.0.”

Sparks noted that most E-MTAs can be upgraded to E-DVAs with a software download: “We’re working on software so that even old devices can be upgraded.”

Older models were shipped with less memory, and that will naturally restrict what can be done with them, but they will be able to operate in a PC 2.0 environment.

Late last year, Comcast quietly began market testing in its Fort Myers, Fla., system a product it’s calling HomePoint that uses the PacketCable DECT application. Although the service is based on PacketCable 1.5, rather than PC 2.0, it demonstrates the PacketCable approach and the utility of the PacketCable DECT profile.

Comcast’s DECT phone is from Technicolor. The phone works directly with a combined PacketCable-based cable modem/wireless router. The handset can also include Wi-Fi connectivity. Customers can use the handset to connect to the Web, to get and respond to e-mail, and to get weather and news updates.

“One can envision these working better in a 2.0 environment,” Walker said. “They’re not a fused service yet.”

Cable operators are interested in introducing dual-mode wireless handsets that connect to cellular networks while roaming, and then connect in the home through Wi-Fi. “SIP is more conducive to handling those kinds of calls,” Sparks noted.

It looks like the market for this technology is going to simmer, not boil.


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