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SCTE Cable-Tec Expo: The Shape of Things to Come

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 7:45pm
CED staff

Cable-Tec Expo saw the introduction of a handful of ultra-dense QAMs and CMTSs (the better to CMAP you with, my dear) and more ways for cable operators to integrate multiple sources of content and applications (social networking, over the top, content delivery networks). And, of course, almost everywhere that attendees turned there was everybody’s favorite new toy – a tablet computer (remote access, mobility).

Feel free to cross-reference those subjects with our Broadband 50, starting on page 16. This year’s Cable-Tec Expo appeared to hit all of the industry’s major concerns. With a tightly focused schedule of sessions at Expo, the cable industry also dispatched many of its technical executives to the CTAM Summit earlier in the week, an acknowledgment of how, when it comes to communications services, the technology and the business are inextricably intertwined.

SERVING CMAP
The converged multi-service access platform (CMAP) approach was developed in response to the rapidly increasing number of flows being directed through QAMs. Continuing to add QAMs to handle traffic is simply not feasible – headends would eventually be overwhelmed by racks of the things.

The CMAP approach includes making and deploying far-denser edge QAMs and collapsing them into cable modem termination systems (CMTSs).

Jorge SalingerComcast is one of the driving forces behind CMAP, and Jorge Salinger, Comcast’s vice president of access architecture, was on hand at Cable-Tec Expo to outline the approach. Salinger said the cable industry needs to implement CMAP in order to keep up with the demand for cable’s narrowcast services.

“One of the major points of this is: Let’s get something that is space-efficient, power-efficient, because we don’t have the room to double or quadruple our CMTSs,” Salinger said. CMAP equipment will feature roughly 50 percent space savings in the same headend and more than 50 percent in power savings.

In July, the first versions of the configuration and management and modular interface specifications of CMAP were completed. The second and final iterations of the modular access shelf-to-packet shelf interface (PASI) and configuration and management specifications, along with the third version of hardware and functions, are set to be wrapped up before December.

Testing of CMAP equipment could start next year, followed by more product availability in 2012 and deployments in early 2013.

BigBand Networks took the wraps off of its new 40:1 QAM, which comes as either a blade or a plug-in to the company's Media Services Platform (MSP). Marrying high-density QAMs with its MSP, BigBand posits, makes it easy to quickly add new applications and share bandwidth efficiently across multiple applications.

RGB Networks announced it was preparing for CMAP by increasing the density of its carrier-class chassis.

Earlier, in September, Harmonic announced a shipping date for its HectoQAM (the NSG 9000-40G), which supports up to 36 QAMs per port. The company said it can deliver up to 648 QAMs in a tworack-unit chassis.

Although not directly referencing CMAP, Arris addressed the density issue by significantly increasing the downstream density of its C4 CMTS. The DOCSIS 3.0 C4 debuted with a single-slot cable access module (CAM) with 16 downstream channels. Arris can now expand capacity to 32 North American DOCSIS (Annex B), or 24 European DOCSIS (Annex A), downstream channels.

Adding increased downstream density gives cable operators the ability to deliver more bandwidth per subscriber at a much lower cost than previously possible, Arris explained.

CMAP also provides for PON deployments, which Salinger said would be used for commercial services, IP video and future access technologies.

'Keeping pace with the digital consumer'

AT THE DPoE
PON for business services appears to have been quietly added to Comcast’s roadmap, and the industry’s roadmap. Just before the show, CableLabs announced it would be publishing the specs for DOCSIS Provisioning of EPON (DPoE).

DPoE is far more ambitious than it sounds, as it will rely on at least one entirely new product for the cable industry.

MSOs could roll out business services to corporate customers by extending their networks with Ethernet passive optical networks (EPON), but to do so would require additional provisioning systems that would threaten to become yet another back office silo – precisely what cable is trying to get away from.

That’s why it would be conducive to use extant DOCSIS-based provisioning systems to also provision services over EPON, and that’s precisely what DPoE makes possible.

DPoE complicates things on the equipment side, however. It specifies a revision of optical network units (ONUs) – the PON equivalent to cable modems – to appear to DOCSIS provisioning systems as if they were cable modems. Experts believe that current ONUs could be revised relatively easily to conform to DPoE specifications.

Just as the DPoE ONU would serve as a sort of cable modem, there has to be some sort of rough equivalent of the CMTS. That system simply does not exist, however, and would have to be designed to order and then built.

Comcast is also a major advocate for DPoE. Shamim Akhtar, director of network architecture and engineering at Comcast, and his group contributed heavily to the new spec. He confidently declared, “This is the future of DOCSIS.” Akhtar was the Pacesetter Award recipient for Optical Access Technologies.

TABLET CONTROL
There seemed to be an iPad in every vendor booth at Expo. At the immediately preceding CTAM Summit, Comcast’s Todd Walker, senior vice president of video product development, was something less than specific about when his company would release its ballyhooed iPad remote control – turned out to be mid-November – while CableLabs has come up with its own prototype of an iPad remote that works with most legacy set-top boxes.

Comcast intends to enable its iPad-owning subscribers to launch VOD movies, control their DVRs and have better search capabilities for finding what they want.

Walker called the iPad remote “a fundamental game-changer” and said it would lead to Comcast subscribers watching more VOD and more pay VOD. Currently, the iPad is in the hands of Comcast employees. Walker said he was so impressed with the iPad remote that he vowed never to use his standard remote control again.

After Comcast CEO Brian Roberts’ iPad demonstration at The Cable Show earlier this year, some smaller cable operators asked CableLabs to work on an iPad remote, according to CableLabs senior architect Debbie Fitzgerald. Both Comcast’s and CableLabs’ iPad remotes use EBIF, although Fitzgerald said CableLabs could have used tru2way, or even some proprietary clients, to enable its proof-of-concept iPad remote.

With the CableLabs prototype, viewers can watch movie trailers on their iPads, play movie-related trivia and search for movies based on an actor’s name.

Meanwhile, Ericsson’s Android-based tablet was in its second stage of design. Ericsson’s IPTV Remote, which uses DLNA applications, has a touchscreen interface that scrolls into future video listings and allows viewers to launch programs on their TVs and browse different types of video media, as well as preview and organize playlists.

Shortly after Expo, Technicolor (formerly Thomson) launched the second generation of its Media Touch. The Androidbased tablet was designed to do much of what an iPad can do, but it was also created specifically for service providers to use as an access and control device for home entertainment systems. In addition, it includes a microphone and camera that can be used to support online chat and voice over IP telephony, all integrated with social network applications.

'Technology Leadership Roundtable'

THE IP BANDWAGON
The entire communications industry is going to be all-IP … someday. Two very big questions remain: When and how? The “Technology Leadership Roundtable” session provided a glimpse into the transition to IP video, and the paths for cable operators are varied.

Moderator Leslie Ellis asked the panel if the immediate plans for IP included linear, on-demand or both, to which Cisco’s John Chapman, fellow and CTO of the company’s Access and Transport Technology Group, replied that the consumer-driven market for IP devices is still evolving. Chapman said the transition to IP video could be over the next 10 years, with interim measures such as overlays in the first five years, followed by some cable operators making the switch anywhere from the fifth to the ninth year.

“We’ll get to all-IP, but the challenge is getting there smoothly,” Chapman said.

He said the cost per IP video bit is on the decline, similar to how the price of QAMs dropped a few years back.

Trying to define how much bandwidth will be needed for IP video is also a moving target since cable operators have different networks. Chapman said that the four channels typically dedicated to IP today will increase to eight with HD and SD as the IP video migration begins, and then to 16 for IP video once half of the households are passed.

Jay Rolls, Cox Communications’ senior vice president of technology, said that since Cox has gone to 1 gig for its networks, it could go with eight channels. Comcast has cleared up bandwidth headroom with analog-to-digital conversion in order to launch DOCSIS 3.0 and more HD channels. Time Warner Cable, meanwhile, has taken the switched digital route.

Steve Reynolds, Comcast’s senior vice president of CPE and home networking, said Comcast is continuing to explore SDV – it has launched several trials – while Time Warner Cable’s Mike Hayashi, executive vice president of architecture, development and engineering, said TWC hasn’t ruled out using digital terminal adapters for analog reclamation, or adding spectrum where it’s needed in markets.

In a separate session, Cisco’s Dave Brown, manager of technology architectures, deliberately courted controversy by invoking the possible death of headends, which he said can be eliminated in favor of media data centers, Web services and increased cable modem termination bandwidth for video over DOCSIS.

The next wave of IP video, Brown said, is “about the delivery of video content anywhere, on-net or off-net, to all sorts of different devices, like TVs, iPads, PlayStations, etcetera. It also enables a new business model transformation, as you can bring in ecosystem partners like Netflix and Amazon that used to be competitors to drive additional revenue.”

WHERE’S THE EBIF?
One area of consensus for the “Technology Leadership Roundtable” panel was that interactive TV, after countless false starts over the years, has finally arrived with the current deployments of EBIF. Reynolds cited the work that cable operators have done with Canoe Ventures on advertising campaigns based on EBIF as proof that interactive TV has indeed arrived.

Hayashi said the interactive EBIF ads have already scaled to 20 to 40 million displays a week, and that to scale to a million displays a day isn’t a technology issue, which Reynolds agreed with.

“It’s our job to open up the pipe, and it’s not a technology issue once the pipe is open,” Reynolds said.

In a session on interactive marketing at CTAM earlier in the week, Cablevision’s Gemma Toner, senior vice president of marketing and business development, said her company trialed a series of EBIF applications, some that allowed viewers to request information, others that offered coupons and discounts, and still others that offered free samples.

The last category of trials was so popular that Cablevision had to pull the plug on them early because they kept running out of samples.

Rebecca Rusk Lim, senior director of Internet and interactive TV at Starz, said Starz is finding success with some very simple EBIF applications, including one that allows viewers tuning in late to a movie to start over. Another is an EBIF bug that pops up at the end of a movie, giving the viewer a chance to rate it. After the rating, the app presents the viewer with the option to jump back to the ondemand menu.

3-D PUSH
Based on sales of 3-D sets so far, the technology has already been a huge success, said Jonas Tanenbaum, vice president of marketing for LCD/LED TV at Samsung Electronics America, at another CTAM Summit session. “Some 14 percent of our display business so far this year has been LED sets. And about 14 percent of our LED business was 3-D sets.”

That outlook may have been a bit too rosy. 3-D isn’t at the top of programmers’ list of things to offer right now. Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks, said high-definition currently remains a higher priority for her company.

Paul Liao, CableLabs’ president and CEO, allowed that 3-D has the potential to be popular. The good thing about it, he said, is that it doesn’t require any changes to the cable plant.

But Cablevision COO Tom Rutledge wasn’t so sure. He said he sees 3-D as more of a new format with associated delivery costs, rather than a business with potential revenue streams. “3-D could be a differentiator at first, and it will probably provide some opportunities for us,” Rutledge told session attendees. “But it won’t be a revenue generator.”

Rutledge pointed out that Cablevision's Clearview Cinemas conducted an experiment where it offered movies in both 3-D and 2-D at the same time, at the same price point, and 25 percent of viewers chose to watch the movie in 2-D.

"It has limited appeal to many consumers, and it's not going to be as easy to adopt as high-definition," Rutledge said.

The 2010 Pacesetter Awards

At the Cable-Tec Expo in New Orleans, the 2010 class of Pacesetter Award recipients were honored for blazing trails in a variety of technological endeavors that ranged from architecting one of the first MSO converged networks; to an innovative program that rationalized test, installation and inventory management; to deploying one of the most extensive fiber deep installations in the world; to helping define network management specs recently published by CableLabs.

CONVERGED PLATFORMS
The Pacesetter Award for Converged Platforms went to the Engineering and Technology Team at Bresnan Communications. The Pacesetter for Converged Platforms recognized Bresnan engineers for the design and implementation of their new converged network infrastructure.

The Bresnan team studied various options and developed a converged network architecture that uses a flexible, deterministic mix of connection-oriented Ethernet and TDM technologies to improve responsiveness and control costs, while providing business-critical voice, data, video and commercial broadband service. The new network configuration achieves measurable capital and operational cost savings and greatly reduces complexity of both design and management in comparison with other options.

Bresnan CTO Pragash Pillai accepted the award for the team. The team was cited by Fujitsu senior vice president of sales Doug Moore for their tech-smart and customer-focused approach to upgrading and modernizing their network.

The Converged Platforms Pacesetter was sponsored by Fujitsu.

ADVANCED ARCHITECTURES
Daniel Proulx, senior vice president of engineering at Videotron, was the nominee for the Pacesetter for Advanced Architectures.

Proulx, when tasked with rolling out the next generation of Videotron’s network architecture, positioning it for unlimited consumer bandwidth, chose Aurora Networks’ fiber deep architecture. With small node sizes for the growing bandwidth demands of its customers and innovative DWDM technology to overcome fiber constraints, Aurora’s solution was the choice.

The network will be deployed throughout the Greater Montréal area, passing 1.8 million homes. And the award was presented by Aurora Networks CEO Guy Sucharczuk.

The Advanced Architectures Pacesetter was sponsored by Aurora Networks.

Test & Measurement Pacesetter Award

TEST & MEASUREMENT
The Pacesetter for Test & Measurement was given to Tom Kearney, regional director of technical operations for Comcast’s Beltway Region, and was presented by VeEx CEO Cyrille Morelle.

Kearney coordinated a multi-prong program that specified a comprehensive GPS-enabled multi-tester for use by contract installers, set metrics for installation rates and tracked deliveries (including inventory information) to create a more efficient dispatch, installation and tracking process that benefited installers as much as it improved overall service for Comcast customers.

The Test & Measurement Pacesetter was sponsored by VeEx.

Pacesetter for Optical Access Technologies Award

OPTICAL ACCESS TECHNOLOGIES
The Optical Access Technologies Pacesetter was granted to Shamim Akhtar, director of network architecture and engineering at Comcast Corporate Engineering.

Akhtar was instrumental in driving the DOCSIS Provisioning of EPON (DPoE) concept, piloting EPON fiber access technology to deliver business services. As part of that effort, he worked with his peers within Comcast, Hitachi and other vendors to develop some of the concepts needed for DPoE. CableLabs is now planning to publish the DPoE protocols.

Hitachi Communication Technologies America President Kagehiro Yamamoto presented the award to Akhtar.

The Optical Access Technologies Pacesetter was sponsored by Hitachi.

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