The 2011 Cable Show
Working together is no longer enough. Now it's about working together quickly.
At the 2011 Cable Show in Chicago, TV Everywhere was seemingly everywhere, including in the cloud. And widgets are rapidly mutating into apps.
The task of representing the entire industry fell to Comcast, which demonstrated how cable is moving rapidly and pursuing all three of those technologies – frequently in combination. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts was given prime session time to show off:
• The Xfinity TV Everywhere app launched for iPads only months ago and for Android devices just weeks ago
• New keyword search capability on the Xfinity app
• Apps on TV, including Facebook, Pandora, traffic and weather
• Transmission rates in excess of 1 Gbps on its Chicago network, making use of DOCSIS 3.0 channel bonding and new modems from Cisco. The day before, Comcast Cable President Neil Smit got to introduce:
• A new RF (non-line-of-sight) remote control for the TV with a Qwerty keyboard built into the back (wielded by Roberts in his subsequent demo)
• A new box (built by Technicolor) that, along with a webcam, enables Skype calls on TVs.
Smit also demonstrated a new box, made by Motorola Mobility, that enables customers to distribute cable channels throughout their homes using Wi-Fi. Apparently it was meant to be debuted at The Cable Show, but word leaked out in advance.
And also, just before the show, Comcast announced it was going to start rolling out its Xfinity Home Security service beyond its trial city of Houston.
Off in the Samsung and Sony booths, meanwhile, those two were each showing off their own app stores, with apps that customers could download directly to their respective TVs. One of those apps was Comcast’s Xfinity app. It was curious that two TV makers that have gone out of their way to provide program guides directly on their TVs were deliberately giving a rival guide the opportunity to compete straight up on their screens.
So there were the industry’s three main technological themes – TV Everywhere/multi-screen, the cloud and apps – as embodied by the biggest cable operator.
Of no less importance was that the avalanche of announcements left the impression that cable, despite recent history, can move fast enough to compete.
Each iteration of DOCSIS took years to develop and roll out; EBIF is taking years; tru2way has years to go; and the national advertising thrust led by Canoe Ventures is taking years (the industry demonstrated progress in all of those endeavors at the show). But while that pace may be adequate to keep up with traditional competitors, cable needed to demonstrate that it can run with newer rivals that have innovation cycles measured in months, not years.
It was Comcast’s job to demonstrate that, yes, cable is not only competitive and innovative, but it can be quick about it, too. And both Roberts and Smit separately vowed that cable would innovate faster still.
And while Comcast may have been the headliner, the supporting cast at The Cable Show had some impressive tricks up their sleeves, too.
Though overshadowed by Comcast’s 1 Gbps demonstration, Arris did more than four times better, using DOCSIS 3.0 channel bonding to achieve downstream data rates (to a node) of a boggling 4.5 Gbps.
During the show’s annual CTO session, Time Warner Cable’s Mike LaJoie said he’s been hearing the same worries about cable lacking adequate bandwidth for 15 years.
“I think that the cable industry and the cable network industries are in the catbird seat,” LaJoie said. “We developed the most compelling content and brands, and we have the best networks. I think we’re in great shape. It takes years to become an overnight success.”
Another session, “HFC-ing the light: Advancements in next-gen network architecture,” covered other capacity-enhancing techniques, many in combination with node splitting.
Robert Howald from the CTO office of Motorola Mobility said: “If you do deploy S-CDMA and 250 homes passed in the node split, you’re probably pretty good for the rest of the decade. S-CDMA shifts the worry window.”
Jorge Salinger, vice president of access architecture for Comcast, said cable operators will probably need more downstream capacity before adding additional upstream capacity. The deployment of IPbased video services will have an impact on downstream capacity.
“The deployment of IP-based video will have to coexist with legacy video for a very long time,” Salinger said. “I’m advocating using the spectrum in an overlay manner. It leaves the legacy services and CPE untouched in both the field and in the homes. I think leaving the legacy infrastructure untouched is a very important thing.”
The message from the show is clear: Competitors deploying FTTH can boast about 1 Gbps transmission rates, but cable can do that – and better. And even though cable could yet go to FTTH, doing so is unlikely to become necessary any time soon.
TV Everywhere and multi-screen delivery was easily the most common theme at the show, discussed incessantly, making it seem inevitable despite reservations from some quarters of the industry.
In recent months, Viacom and Discovery have pulled their content from some TV Everywhere rollouts. And in one of the Cable Show’s keynote sessions, Time Warner Inc. CEO Jeff Bewkes suggested it would be better to nail down VOD (specifically regarding collapsing VOD windows) before moving on to broadband distribution, while Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Tom Rothman’s skepticism about the very appropriateness of TV Everywhere was a conversational wet towel.
But most objections to TV Everywhere appear to be financial rather than philosophical.
Some programmers – HBO and ESPN prominently – have motored full-speed ahead into TV Everywhere, establishing the ability to distribute, on their own, their video to subscribers who authenticate through their multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).
David Preschlack, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing at Disney & ESPN Networks Group, said that getting ESPN’s mobile operations up and running wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. “I couldn’t be more pleased,” he told a Cable Show audience.
So the industry is working to get more content to more devices in more places.
BigBand Networks and Clearleap integrated the former’s vIP Pass with the latter’s Stream On Demand system. The combination allows operators to stream entire libraries of managed linear and on-demand video content to IP-connected televisions or devices. On-demand streams are routed around the cable modem termination system, taking the bandwidth load off of the CMTS.
Motorola Mobility introduced a cloud-based service that combines an applications platform with the company’s Medios multi-screen service management software suite. The managed multi-screen service, called Medios Xperience, enables MSOs to merge video content (linear and on-demand) with social networking, games and Web-based content.
Avail-TVN also introduced a hosted TV Everywhere service called AnyView, which will help service providers extend VOD and linear television to authenticated, broadband-connected devices such as PCs, Macs, tablets and smartphones.
Synacor has set up a hosted TV Everywhere service that an MSO’s subscribers can access through a Web portal. At the show, the company said Mediacom has signed up to start offering the service later this year.
The whole point of apps is that content, information and processing power can be hosted someplace else – the cloud. With everyone from Apple to Amazon to Best Buy offering cloud storage (and more set to do so), the cloud is the place to be. Cablevision won a lawsuit earlier this year, finally establishing the legality of network storage, giving cable the opportunity to move deeper into the cloud.
Comcast CTO Tony Werner said his company was gearing up for a small trial (of a few dozen homes) of a remote storage DVR service later this year during a panel session at The Cable Show.
Werner said that RS-DVR was a more rational way of storing video assets and that over time, networked DVR “is more friendly than home DVR.”
“We’re all fascinated with remote storage and with the cloud,” he said. "Ultimately, it's just an elegant way to deliver this service. It makes it easier to do whole-home implementations because you don't have to do MoCA. There are so many upsides.”
APPS (THE CLOUD: PART II)
Making his Cable Show debut as the president and CEO of the NCTA, Michael Powell told attendees at the opening general session that “cable must deliver what the consumer wants” by enabling innovative apps across customers’ devices.
Comcast has been working for more than two years to bring Internet-like features to TV screens through a project called Xcalibur. Additional aims included better navigation and search capabilities on live TV and video-on-demand.
Comcast-owned thePlatform is providing the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting for Xcalibur with its mpx platform. The company’s CEO, Ian Blaine, said taking its broadband-based technology and cloud strategy to a TV screen was a challenge.
“It’s a lot more complex in the cable environment than the broadband environment,” Blaine said in an interview with CED. “There are layers like local and national windows and working with the traditional billing system. For us, the takeaway in the trial is that we can make cloud-based services meld with the legacy infrastructure.”
Companies like ActiveVideo have been enabling apps on TVs for years. This time around, ActiveVideo was touting the fact that it can enable developers to create apps using HTML5 – the new, vastly more powerful Web-based language.
TV makers have joined that party. Samsung and Sony showed their app stores at The Cable Show.
Even a set-top maker, Pace, has set up an app store. Pace partnered with chumby industries to mix in interactive apps directly on its set-top boxes. Viewers who have Pace set-tops will be able to go to Pace’s App Café and download apps directly to their boxes. The chumby platform currently offers more than 1,500 applications.
But why doesn’t cable have its own app store?
“We’ve been having this conversation for more than 10 years,” noted Canoe Ventures CTO Arthur Orduna. The problem for cable, he explained, is that cable is nowhere near a homogeneous environment. “We have a lot of moving parts, and they don’t all work well with each other.”
The app store model works for Apple because it is a single company, so it can have a closed model in which it maintains absolute control. Cable is an industry, not a single company. “It’s far easier to partner with them than to emulate them,” Orduna said.
So, maybe no app store, but as Comcast demonstrated at The Cable Show, cable can certainly develop and host apps that run on TV screens, as well as on mobile devices.
Itaas launched a program, dubbed iLaunch, that will allow cable operators to customize and deploy a variety of EBIF applications developed by itaas and thirdparty developers. The company has what it’s calling a basic starter kit that comes with three applications: Remind and Record; QuickStart; and News, Weather & Sports Info.
TRU2WAY AND STBs
With its rising popularity, EBIF has attracted attention away from tru2way, but tru2way is making inroads.
Some of the new app-based features Comcast demonstrated at the show were shown on new Pace hybrid set-top boxes with tru2way and IP capability. Comcast is using the Pace set-top in a market trial of its next-generation Xfinity TV service in Augusta, Ga.
Panasonic also showed forthcoming boxes based on SeaChange’s VividLogic tru2way software stack. The Panasonic STBs are dual-tuner DVRs with MoCA support.
Motorola Mobility, meanwhile, announced a new gateway it is making after getting input from Time Warner Cable. Motorola’s DCX3600M Video Gateway has the ability to transcode QAM MPEG-2 services into MPEG-4 for delivery to mobile devices, including tablets and smartphones, over the home network.
The DCX3600M also provides operators with the flexibility to deliver a mixture of QAM and IP services. The device can tune up to six QAM services simultaneously, or it can access IP services delivered directly over DOCSIS.
Ken Morse, CTO of Cisco’s service provider video technology group, showed off a hybrid gateway the company has been working toward for two to three years. Cisco’s Generation 8, or G8, gateway was designed to enable TV Everywhere today, but still get MSOs to full-blown IP video down the road.
“The industry has said it wants all-IP end to end, but it will be somewhat of a different journey on how they get there. Some may want to deploy IP simulcast, while other customers may want to use their existing infrastructures for a while longer,” Morse said. “Having a modular approach allows you to address different segments of the market.”
The G8 gateway has six tuners, MoCA and DLNA ports, a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem that can bond up to eight downstream and four upstream channels, a minimum of 512 MB of storage, and the ability to transcode MPEG-2 to H.264.
What a difference a year can make. At last year’s Cable Show in Los Angeles, Canoe Ventures manned a spot over in the CableNet section; this year, the MSO-backed advanced advertising entity had a full-blown booth at McCormick Place.
Canoe Ventures was able to woo networks with demos of its RFI campaign, which launched last year and is now available in 20 million EBIF-enabled households, and its polling and trivia products.
The polling and trivia products will be commercially available later this year, according to David Grabert, Canoe Ventures’ vice president of marketing communications.
Comcast Spotlight acknowledged it is using Ensequence’s iTV Manager Service Provider Edition to enable the ongoing rollout of EBIF-enabled local interactive TV advertising. The tools included in the platform cover almost the entire process, from template creation and re-versioning to scheduling and playout.
… AND MORE!
DTAs were designed as low-cost, temporary solutions to help cable operators convert from analog to digital in order to reclaim bandwidth for things like more HD channels or DOCSIS 3.0 services.
Motorola showed a one-way DTA that can deliver HD video – an HD-DTA. Comcast was demonstrating the box in its booth.
Nagra, too, showed an HD-DTA made by Korean vendor Digital Multimedia Technology (DMT). It featured an OpenTV Livewire guide (OpenTV has been folded into Nagra, and both are owned by the Kudelski Group), along with Nagra’s conditional access system (CAS). Cable One has signed on to use the HD-DTAs, which cost around $60 each.
NDS gave U.S. cable operator customers a first look at its Snowflake user interface (UI) at the show. NDS’ Tim Hicks, vice president of professional services, said the Snowflake UI was designed to work with the legacy set-top boxes that are currently deployed by cable operators, while giving them a feature-rich user interface that rivals the likes of Netflix.
The UI, which was first deployed earlier this year by Portuguese service provider Zon Multimedia, uses a DOCSIS Set-Top Gateway (DSG) on the return path, as well as On Ramp on the set-top boxes, to enable poster art, branding and unified searches.
“Guides have been kind of the lowest common denominator, but with Snowflake, they can get a more powerful next-generation guide on their legacy boxes,” Hicks said. “Zon saw a big jump in their VOD after they went to the Snowflake UI.”
While TV Everywhere implies sending video to mobile devices, including smartphones, most cable TV Everywhere services deliver video to mobile devices, but not when they’re mobile – which is to say, when customers use them in-home or, less frequently, when near a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Few addressed cable’s role in catering to mobility, and given the lack of a clear mobility strategy, that was understandable. Cox just pulled the plug on the wireless network it was building, which never carried a commercial call. Cox, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks have joint ownership of some spectrum, but so far, they’re all letting it languish. Some companies are still privatelabeling Clearwire service, but the amount of enthusiasm dedicated to WiMAX is profoundly underwhelming.