Laaaaaaaaaaadies and gentlemen! Welcome to The Cable Show! In the center ring, thrill to television extricated from its planar confinations into the third dimension! Gaze in awe and wonderment as eight – count ’em! – eight DOCSIS 3.0 channels confraternate for an unheraldedly expeditious 290 megabits per second! Gasp as Canoe Ventures puts through its paces a genus and species of beast never before oculated by mortal eyes: a working national dynamic advertising insertion system!
The big general sessions at the NCTA show featured glitz (Twitter!), parlor tricks (Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts showing an app on an iPad!) and policy palaver (FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski promising to keep his hands off cable!), but technology provided many of the biggest highlights of the 2010 Cable Show.
One of the most impressive was a working demonstration of the kind of dynamic ad insertion system that the cable industry – through Canoe Ventures and CableLabs – has been working toward for years.
CANOE’S MAIDEN VOYAGE
The Canoe/CableLabs demo brought together equipment and software from Cisco, Ericsson, OpenTV, This Technology and Texscan NT, showing how ad space can be purchased and ads dynamically inserted into sample VOD content from NBC.
Bruce Dilger, vice president of R&D and chief architect of advanced advertising at OpenTV, conducted the demo for CED, in which he showed how once a national advertiser makes an ad buy, the system automatically inserts an appropriate ad in the appropriate spot within the designated program, with information about the decision almost instantly flowing through the user interfaces used throughout the ad environment all the way down to the local MSO.
The participants have devised a new conceptual approach to such a system, one that compartmentalizes the elements of the system by who could be managing them:
- The elements touched by content providers, including advertising authoring, network campaign planning, and a system that stores and delivers ad spots.
- The elements that could be managed by Canoe, including the CIS/POIS (content information service/placement opportunity information service) and ADS (ad decision service) devoted to national ads.
- The elements that could be under direct operator control, including ADM (ad manager), and CIS/POIS and ADS for local ads, along with a video pump.
At a separate demo in the Ericsson booth, vice president of software strategy Michael Adams discussed a technique Ericsson calls “late binding” that the company devised to enhance a dynamic ad insertion system with targeting.
Ordinarily, an EBIF application is built into the request for information (RFI) that is initiated by a viewer. Ericsson proposes a system that briefly delays the RFI to cross-reference with whatever information might be available to profile the viewer – zip code, time of day, etc. – and then insert the EBIF application, pointing to an ad appropriate for the viewer profile.
EBIF was also the basis for the biggest stunt at the show. Comcast’s Roberts did his best Steve Jobs imitation during a general session, demonstrating a nifty EBIF-based app that turned an iPad into a remote control for the company’s Xfinity service.
It allows the user to change channels on the TV – the remote communicates on its own with the headend – and features a channel guide that is cloud-based.
The remote allows subscribers to recommend a program to a friend without the friend needing to know what channel the program is on. Comcast Labs is also working on other social features such as a chat function.
The search function covers programming on both linear TV and VOD. It also gives subscribers the ability to program their DVRs remotely.
The prototype Web-based remote works with IP-enabled devices, which include PCs, various tablets and smartphones. While Roberts didn’t say when the remote would be available, Comcast currently has the remote DVR function available for download.
Faced with multiple competitors sending content to various devices, Roberts said the remote was one way to embrace new technology without “throwing away old business models.”
Roberts’ demo led into the “Media Everywhere: Implications of the Always-On Network” session. The general consensus was that viewing content across different devices represents an opportunity instead of a threat, but that those involved need to be monetized for their efforts.
CBS President and CEO Les Moonves said an episode of “CSI” costs about $3 million to produce, but the monetary return for someone watching an episode online doesn’t support the production costs, which is why CBS hasn’t made its content available to Hulu.
Moonves also said there needs to be some consideration in regard to putting the right content on the right devices. The example he cited was watching the movie “Avatar” on a cell phone.
Time Warner Inc. Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Bewkes said viewers not only want to watch content when they want and where they want, but also want to be able to interact with it. As long as there’s financial support, he said, “there’s tremendous opportunity” for content owners and cable programmers to create programming that customers can interact with.
Interactivity was also on the mind of ADB CEO François Pogodalla, who in an interview with CED said he wants to take his “personal video cloud” with him wherever he goes, and he wants you to be able to do the same. But the lack of open standards, particularly in the U.S., is hamstringing technologies such as tru2way, he said.
“Tru2way, or OCAP, is not being used here like it should,” he said. “In Europe there are more open standards, and it’s kind of surprising that there aren’t more here. I should be able to take my personal video cloud with me wherever I go. The telcos did it for voice with roaming.”
ActiveVideo agrees that the cloud is the thing, especially when it comes to guides and other interactive applications. Edgar Villalpando, the company’s senior vice president of marketing, said that everyone else is building guides and applications so that they fit on set-top boxes, many of which continue to be technologically limited.
“We’re not a guide, we’re a platform, and we’re saying you don’t have to have a set-top-based guide; it can be cloud-based,” he said. “There will always be room for set-top-based applications and cloud-based applications. We’re saying there just has to be a better division of labor.”
If anyone is demonstrating that, it’s ActiveVideo customer Cablevision. “Cablevision has developed 30 applications in three months,” Villalpando said. “They’re just going nuts.”
Behind closed doors, ADB was showing its 3-D guide that uses the company’s Carbo interface. The guide is able to switch back and forth between 2-D and 3-D as needed.
The UI, which runs on a current ADB set-top box with a software upgrade, lets viewers create profiles and browse across the bottom of the screen with a flip function that is similar to an iPod’s album cover flow.
The 3-D guide also features a rectangular guide that allows users to slide out boxes that have additional information on a program or show.
3-D has been the biggest buzz trend of the last six months or so, with “Avatar” becoming the biggest money-maker in Hollywood history, and through 3-D TVs dominating the news at CES, coverage of the Masters golf tournament and DirecTV set to start delivering a package of 3-D channels.
The Cable Show hosted a 3-D session called “Depth Perceptions: Technical Approaches for 3-D Video Integration” that made it clear that there’s a discrepancy between buzz and the actual delivery of 3-D product.
David Broberg, CableLabs’ vice president of consumer video technology, said signal formatting methods need to evolve from existing compression and equipment to AVC-based multi-view video coding, and there’s a need for replacing equipment such as set-top boxes.
3-D requires separate video streams for the left and right eyes. In order to fit two streams in the space of a single channel, cable is likely to opt to cut the resolution of each in half.
“The first option is the interim, but the endgame is to deliver full resolution,” Broberg said.
Kevin Murray, NDS’ system architect, outlined some areas of concern, such as 3-D picture-in-picture or 3-D picture-inguide, as well as closed captioning that gets divided into two separate boxes on the screen.
You can’t mix 2-D and 3-D on the same screen – viewers won’t be able to make out one or the other, depending on whether they’ve got their glasses on or not. Most set-top makers are already able to convert 2-D graphics and overlays into 3-D, among other tricks, to keep the viewing experience from getting frustrating.
Murray also spoke about graphic design elements and cues that make it easier for the human brain to see the 3-D left and right images correctly. He said new set-top box silicon will have a big impact on enabling stereoscopic 3-D TV.
When asked for a timeframe on the new silicon by moderator Tony Werner, Comcast’s executive vice president and CTO, Broberg said CableLabs is in the process of extending its tru2way set-top box specifications to include 3-D TV.
“The first phase is those additional functionalities that are needed in the settop box for frame caption delivery in a user-friendly way – the switching, signaling, graphic overlays,” he said. “The second phase is where do we want to go, and how do we migrate to the full resolution space? How do we integrate more beautiful graphics, more 3-D rendering in the user interface? I think it’s about two years away, and that’s the reason the specifications are phased.”
Werner also asked Mark Schubin, technology consultant for SchubinCafe. com, when the industry could expect “glassless 3-D” viewing. Schubin said watching 3-D TV without the glasses is doable technology-wise by providing more than two views, but the additional number of views also divides the resolution, which defeats the point of watching 3-D content.
In response to a question by Werner about 3-D audio, Walt Husak, senior manager of electronic media at Dolby Laboratories, said the current versions of surround sound did a good job of putting viewers in the 3-D environment, but there’s a “localization” feature from games that can be used in the future.
In a separate session, Discovery Communications President and CEO David Zaslav was enthusiastic about 3-D. He noted that Discovery is working with Sony and Imax to create a 3-D channel and said “consumer electronics is pushing it. Sports and gaming is fantastic in 3-D. We’re pushing it very hard.”
Philippe Dauman, president and CEO of Viacom, threw a bit of cold water on that, though. “It’s going to be a few years before 3-D is meaningful in TV. Everyone just upgraded their TVs to HD.”
Time Warner Cable Chairman, President and CEO Glenn Britt agreed: “Consumer electronics companies want to push it, but let’s make sure consumers are ready for it first.”
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
Mapping the migratory route of IP video, DOCSIS 3.0, interactive TV and mobile broadband to the wireless world dominated the plenary session: “Road Trip: Mapping Cable’s New-Tech Progression.”
The five panelists from leading cable companies outlined their deployment strategies for 3.0, IP video, and other emerging technologies and services with an underlying emphasis on the growing consumer demand for content everywhere.
“We’re keeping pace with the competition by installing nothing but 3.0. But there’s still work to do like channel bonding,” said Mike LaJoie, CTO of Time Warner Cable.
Upstream channel bonding is high on Rogers Cable’s to-do list, according to Dermot O’Carroll, the company’s senior vice president of access networks. “It’s our highest priority and will be deployed in 2011. If you maintain your plant well, you can get 30 MHz per channel and bridge to channel bonding.”
Comcast is following that path, as well, according to Werner. “We’re more aggressive with upstream channel bonding and [are] now in two markets.”
Panelists also showed a growing enthusiasm for IP video, iTV and advanced advertising, three emerging technologies considered to be crucial to the content everywhere model.
“Response has been huge for iTV, particularly with cruises, vacations and e-mails sent quickly. We’re getting to a scaled platform across the industry,” Werner said.
The industry is also paying more attention to mobile broadband and wireless.
“We firmly believe in the need for mobility in our products. We’re putting lots of energy in mobile,” said panelist Scott Hatfield, executive vice president and CTO of Cox Communications.
Advanced advertising is also being reenergized, according to Terry Cordova, senior vice president and CTO of Suddenlink Communications. “It’s an opportunity for us to put ads out there specific to devices such as Macs,” he said.
At the end of the day, however, the cable’s technology map leads to mobility and access. Concluded O’Carroll: “The future is about ubiquity and access to the network and delivering videos to both mobile devices and home devices.”
Feeding power-starved modems and taking DOCSIS upstream to a gigabit per second highlighted the “Capacity for Change: Capacity Expansion in Theory and Practice” session. Finding the right solution and cost to accomplish both are a work in progress, panelists agreed, but there is movement.
“The stage is being set to accommodate upstream service growth. And there is opportunity for 128 and 256 QAM to grow,” said panelist Robert Thompson, principal staff engineer for Motorola.
With the growing appetite for upstream bandwidth, Cisco CMTS chief architect John Chapman unveiled a solution that includes a low-split to top-split approach, with the endgame being above 1 gigabit.
“We’ll be seeing hundreds of megabits per second in downstream, but there’s a shortage of bandwidth in upstream. Ultimately, more bandwidth is needed. But what’s the right solution and cost?” he asked.
For panelist Dave Urban, a distinguished engineer for Comcast, the upstream capacity issue is real and high on the company’s radar screen.
“We’re looking at techniques to get more capacity upstream and lessen upstream interference to digital video scenarios. Capacity upstream is a real problem,” he admitted.
WiMAX could be the beneficiary of increased upstream capacity, suggested Ayham Al-Banna, staff systems architect for Arris.
“WiMAX is a good candidate to support future networks because of flexible channel widths, security and QoS. But we need new resources for upstream capacity.”
He also detailed a promising solution to add power to existing cable modems. “Dynamic steering of power-starved CMs, DSGs, STBs and EMTAs through DOCSIS 3.0 and channel bonding and linking WiMAX to HFC networks will allow more bandwidth.”
Nearly everyone making and showing equipment at The Cable Show had a whole-home strategy, starting with DVRs.
ADB’s whole-home DVR solution uses the company’s ADB-6880CDMX, which includes a digital-only HDTV dual-tuner/decoder with a DOCSIS 2.0-embedded cable modem and a DVR.
The whole-home DVR supports up to three IP tuner-less clients and serves as a mini gateway in a home. The platform also allows connectivity, content discovery – including both broadcast and Internet content – and content sharing.
The secondary box is the ADB-3720WM, which is a low-cost hybrid IP client that doesn’t have tuners or CableCards. ADB is using MoCA to connect the boxes in the homes.
Arris’ Whole Home Solution included a new media gateway that supports either QAM-based or IP-based video delivery. The gateway box, which features Arris hardware combined with assets from the company’s purchase of Digeo last year, has 500 GB of DVR storage, triple-play support, including an 8 x 4 DOCSIS 3.0 channel configuration, and the ability to stream up to six devices in a home.
The gateway supports MoCA, Ethernet and wireless deliveries and has two USB 2.0 ports, as well as two voice lines. The gateway uses a CableCard, but the rest of the devices in the home don’t need one, which means less expensive set-top boxes can be used in other rooms.
The gateway enables video to be sent to PCs, TVs and other devices, while Arris’ Whole Home Solution gives smaller Tier 2 cable operators the ability to customize user interfaces that span linear, VOD and over-the-top video content. Through a modular architecture, Arris has also added interfaces for games and services such as music from Rhapsody and photo sharing through Flickr, although MSOs are free to pursue their own partnerships, as well.
Arris also mixed in browser and Flash support for RSS feeds over the Internet and widgets and games. The platform supports network-attached storage and “discovers” devices within a home.
Arris expects the whole-home platform to be in lab trials with North American cable operators in the second quarter of this year, with deployments taking place early next year.
Samsung sells set-tops and DVRs, but it was also showing how easily content can be distributed around the house using Wi-Fi and DLNA. The company showed a gateway box that connected a TV, a video recorder, a digital picture frame, a digital slate and a handheld device, allowing them to share applications and video.
Energy consumption represents a significant cost to cable operators, and driving those costs down is becoming a topof-mind issue, with new technologies and just plain common sense two of the most workable solutions, according to panelists at the “Getting Energized: Good Ideas (and Profitable Approaches) for Managing Energy Consumption” session.
Some of the quickest ways to cut costs are adding hybrid vehicles to the fleet of trucks, using more efficient power management and having regular discussions about saving energy.
“We have a fleet of 30,000 vehicles and the 12th-largest hybrid fleet in the country. We can’t do as many eco-friendly vehicles as we’d like, but there is lots of low-hanging fruit in reducing consumption, like less road time for trucks,” said Sam Chernak, senior vice president of network architecture at Comcast.
Heating cell towers and managing hot air in headends is another cost-saving measure. “We’re saving 90 percent of our energy through a heat exchange wheel in a new headend. It’s a simple system and lowers operational costs,” said D’Arcy Brown, director of network planning for Rogers Cable.
At Cox, a 400-kilowatt fuel cell is being built at one of the company’s facilities, according to Jay Rolls, senior vice president of technology at Cox.
“They can go 24 hours a day, whereas solar works about five to six hours, and the payback is about three years. We’re aggressively pursuing that,” Rolls explained.
Cox recently built a 1-megawatt solar facility in New Jersey, but Rolls admitted solar is “economically challenging” and that only the state’s heavy incentives allowed the company to go solar.
Time Warner Cable, according to panelist and senior director of technical operations Dan Cooper, may be testing solar in its Texas systems and other markets. For now, however, the company is tightening up its own operations.
“It’s about closing all the holes, using outside air, keeping the under floor clear. These are low-cost and straight forward.”
Meanwhile, the SCTE is working with Alpha Technologies to build a green, multikilowatt power system for its headquarters, SCTE President and CEO Mark Dzuban told CED.
One of the good things about The Cable Show is hearing how the other half of the cable industry lives. Not surprisingly, cable programmers are also infatuated with some of the same things as cable operators, including 3-D, IP video and TV Everywhere-type services.
“We’re really going out and getting our arms around 3-D in a very exciting way,” said Chuck Pagano, ESPN’s executive vice president of technology. “We’re starting our World Cup coverage in June in 3-D, which we’ve never done before. We’re passionate about the fact that 3-D will be following an evolution, and that it will be in every TV set over the next five years because the technology is changing.”
Pagano, speaking at the “Changing Channels: Assessing New Possibilities for Content Delivery” session, said ESPN was also focusing on IP video.
“My personal feeling is that everything will be in packets before it departs for deployment, and that [IP] things will be here sooner than later,” he said.
Chris Cookson, president of Sony Pictures Technologies, said his company was getting behind the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE), which is seeking to create a content rights locker that could be fulfilled by various service providers.
“We’d like to highlight that notion that it should be convenient to get access to the content that you have the rights to,” he said. “We’ve been active within DECE to try to set standards within it so that access rights management, file formats and devices can work interchangeably across different services. Part of the general effort is to make our content more accessible, more available, more user-friendly.
“DECE is really the flip side of TV Everywhere. TV Everywhere is based upon your identity that says you have some subscriptions and certain services you can get because you are you, while DECE says because you are you, you have the ability to create a library and have access to the materials of your library through most any platform available. That’s one of the key initiatives our group has been working on.”
Cookson also said that Sony was trying to ensure that consumers get the best 3-D experience possible, and that poorly rendered 3-D will result in some consumers not wanting to embrace the technology. Scott Teissler, Turner Broadcasting System’s executive vice president, CTO and chief digital strategist, said that while Turner, along with parent company Time Warner, has been one of the chief promoters of TV Everywhere, the authentication process needs to be better.
“We had a chance back when we were inventing the Internet to invent authentication, as well, but we didn’t do it, so 20 years later we’re paying the price,” he said. “But it’s a concept that is popping up not just in the TV Everywhere context – it’s also popped up in the context of the digital entertainment ecosystem and in a variety of different kinds of consumer services online.
“To the consumer, authentication is a unitary concept, but to us in the involved industries, it’s a highly fractured and fragmented way of doing things. That’s a problem that we should keep in mind for TV Everywhere, that there are other economic stacks that have a vested interest in this, and we don’t want to confuse consumers. We want to make the process of authentication consistent, transparent, scalable and simple.”
To that end, Teissler said the Open Authentication Technical Committee, which formed around the time of the first TV Everywhere deployments, has been trying to come up with authentication processes that work across different networks, devices and applications.
“It’s a group of distributors and programmers, with an audience of technological enablers, who are trying to remove the excuses for not doing TV Everywhere right – not just right by the content owners and the copyright owners, but also right by consumers,” Teissler said. “I urge you to pay attention to what is going on with TV Everywhere.”
Along with improved authentication, Teissler also said there needs to be a way to measure the reach, frequency and duration of consumption for TV Everywhere videos across the different platforms and content formats. Better measurement schemes are needed for tuning business models and for understanding consumer behavior, he said.
Scripps Networks President John Lansing noted in another session that authentication needs to make sense for all of the parties involved, and that there needs to be fair compensation across the board in order to truly build out a three-screen stratagem.
DEALING WITH D.C.
In the "Conversation 2.0" general session, Genachowski tried to allay fears about his “third way” plan, insisting that his proposal explicitly would not give the FCC power to control prices or demand line sharing.
He defended his plan, but he also said he was open to self-regulation by the communications industry, provided there was an “FCC backstop” – the authority to step in if self-regulation fails to work.
The bad news, Genachowski said, is that multiple studies show the U.S. is lagging in terms of broadband. One study in particular, he said, establishes a link between broadband and global competitiveness, and the U.S. is 40th out of 40 on that list.
The good news is that cable infrastructure, and to some extent telco infrastructure, is so well developed it can be considered a competitive advantage.
The key is to drive greater broadband adoption. “So getting people to adopt broadband is as near win-win for the government and the industry as I’ve ever seen,” Genachowski said.
The problem is that the recent court case Comcast brought against the FCC, and that was decided in favor of Comcast, damaged the legal foundation supporting everything the FCC would like to do to promote broadband adoption, which Genachowski said the FCC has been articulating clearly all along.
The Comcast decision, he said, doesn’t change the FCC’s aims or policy goals at all. The question, he said, “is how do we get back to a solid legal foundation to do what we want to do – and not more? We reject both extremes. One extreme is to do nothing. The other is to implement all of Title II” – the provisions in telecommunications law that gives the FCC very broad and intrusive control over telephony, including authority over rates and line sharing.
He said that the “third way” approach is to pare down Title II to only those provisions that allow the FCC to encourage broadband adoption. “Our staff has developed a narrow approach with barriers against regulatory creep, and regulatory over-reaching, and gets us to a legal foundation similar to where we were before the Comcast decision.”
So rate regulation and line sharing are off the table, NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow pressed him?
“They’re off the table,” Genachowski said.
Pressed by McSlarrow about the possibility of self-regulation, Genachowski said he is open to processes that involve engineers and others solving problems “as long as there’s an FCC backstop.”