Charting an evolutionary course.
Twenty years ago, the cable industry underwent a profound transformation by transitioning to hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) technology. Operators were confident that HFC would remain a robust and flexible network architecture, but it’s unlikely that even the most optimistic of cable engineers could have predicted the incredibly dynamic environment that HFC is today.
In this year’s Roundtable, our participants talk about how the ongoing evolution of the HFC network is nowhere near complete, with years of technological innovations yet to come that will support any number of new services and features.
With so many technological directions to pursue, charting a course is difficult. This year, we hear from CTOs whose companies range in size from the very biggest to among the smallest to see what’s on their roadmaps.
How is HFC architecture evolving?
“The HFC network continues to demonstrate how extensible it is,” said Jay Rolls, formerly the senior vice president of technology at Cox Communications and now senior vice president and CTO at Charter Communications. “Look no further than the wide array of directions different MSOs have taken to enhance their platform: switched digital video, 1 GHz upgrades, analog-to-digital conversions and spectrum reclamation. Two areas that seem to be getting the most attention: bandwidth efficiency (more near-term) and upstream bandwidth (more long-term). There are a number of forums within which these topics are being discussed.”
“HFC is exceeding our needs,” said Wade Holmes, vice president of technology at BendBroadband. “Watching consumption skyrocket in 2010 through 2011, we aggressively built out edge QAM capacity and began proactively deploying 8 x 4 tuner modems and hybrid gateways. With the implementation of metered usage and high-capacity CMTS line cards, we’re in a position to focus on service, augmenting the effort of node segmentation to proactive field maintenance.
“The return path continues to trend flat, and we have significant strength left through advanced modulation and channel bonding,” Holmes continued. “Longer-term, it is difficult to tell which approach has the most value. Pushing further in the plant, regardless of the technology, appears to be the most valuable in terms of reliability and performance. We will focus on infrastructure and the home network while the technology incubates.”
Joe Jensen, executive vice president and CTO of Buckeye CableSystem, said Buckeye is already 100-percent DOCSIS 3.0. In the short term, he said, Buckeye will continue with node segmentation and will implement wide upstream channelization. For the long term, the company is considering new architectures such as CCAP and the conversion to all-digital.
Comcast executive vice president and CTO Tony Werner explained the roadmap that Comcast and its MSO peers are working on: “The main phenomenon happening in the access network is the increasing need for narrowcast QAMs as VOD, high-speed data and other tactics like SDV require more bandwidth allocations. In response, there are several forms of innovation and evolution happening in the access network, collectively aligned to reduce unit cost in this expanding universe and to drive more spectral efficiency.
“The first is our current testing and planned deployment of the CCAP. The effect of CCAP was not only to combine the legacy edge QAM and CMTS devices for a streamlined operational efficiency and power/space savings, but also to help our industry manage the explosion of narrowcast carriers. Taking advantage of the current state of silicon, we will have 32 narrowcast QAMs on a single port with a roadmap to more than double that, and 96 broadcast QAMs. This will allow us to manage our cost basis in a competitive industry with still-consistent subscriber consumption growth.”
(For more on CCAP, see “CCAP: More than just box replacement” on page 26, as well as our accompanying wallchart.)
“Slightly more revolutionary is the current work we are involved in with our cable peers in guidelining the next release of DOCSIS. Using the same planned chassis, we are looking at some basic tweaks that we believe will render DOCSIS at both price parity and spectral-efficiency parity with EPON and fiber-based architectures. The industry is well engaged in developing this spec and is looking at a number of exciting FEC, modulation and spectrum decisions,” Werner said.
“And companion work to our DOCSIS plan is to continue to work with IEEE and CableLabs to shepherd the EPoC standard and spec out of the ‘optical coax device’ to ensure compatibility with the EPON MAC, which will drive scale and cost management,” Werner continued. “This is largely done today for the business services realm and will naturally lead from EPoC to EPON, and ultimately can become an option for the larger residential arena should it be needed to complement DOCSIS.
“And to complete the body of work, we are actively studying other solutions, such as QAM-in-the-Node, and ensuring a firm understanding of the costs and other benefits. Today, our jury is still out on this, but my team is well engaged and working with that sector of the supplier base that is trying to perfect this.
“In summary: The access plant is undergoing rapid changes as viewing habits change and as the Internet product continues to grow. We love the DOCSIS platform, as it turns out to nicely lend itself to new spectral allocations between services and managed, incremental carrier growth. Going forward, we have a great roadmap for tweaking DOCSIS and a suite of solutions for whatever consumption model carries the day.”
What are cable’s options for wireless moving forward? What will that mean for cable networks?
BendBroadband is one of the few U.S. MSOs operating its own cellular network.
“Wireless is a dynamic space,” Holmes said. “BendBroadband deployed HSPA+ as a double-play service in 2009 (SIP voice and data), and we are converting customers to a freshly launched dual-band 700/AWS LTE network (December 2011) through mid-2012.
“The difficulty is meeting the consumer demands with limited spectrum,” Holmes continued, “and being an early adopter on the product for a data-only play. Fixed data has a different set of challenges than mobile voice, and our engineering team has persevered to deliver an incredible product to rural and underserved customers. The difficulty is managing video traffic on the network with limited spectrum assets and watching dominant players in the mobility sector enter our service footprint.
“In our position with an active mobility network, partnership in the same spectrum blocks could prove valuable,” he concluded.
Charter is one of the leaders in deploying wireless access points into the home, Rolls reminded. “What we’ve learned is that many Wi-Fi implementations are not as mature as one might think.
“Additionally, customer behaviors are placing more demands on equipment, driving us to focus on staying ahead of performance and quality expectations. With high Wi-Fi attach rates to new broadband connects, we’ve really had to learn how to scale and support in-home Wi-Fi networking. We only see the consumer demand for Wi-Fi increasing as consumers continue to purchase large numbers of Wi-Fi-enabled CE devices,” Rolls added.
Buckeye has been a significant player in local cell backhaul for the last 10 years or more, Jensen noted. The company is offering wireless through an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) agreement with Sprint.
Jensen said the company is reviewing Wi-Fi local options and “reviewing alternative in-house options such as plastic optical fiber.”
And even though many of its larger MSO brethren in the U.S. have had a fitful record with providing wireless service on their own, Buckeye will consider leasing or purchasing spectrum as a long-term option, Jensen said.
Werner added: “We are and continue to be bullish on Wi-Fi, both in the home and out of the home. We continue to see increased use of our Xfinity Wi-Fi hot zones.”
How do you see customer premises equipment developing?
“CPE development continues to get easier as tools get better and as both us and our vendors continue to mature processes,” Werner said.
Rolls said: “One change we’ve seen regarding CPE is the move away from CPE as being the focal point of the discussion. More and more, it’s the larger ecosystem where our attention is placed.
“In the future, CPE (and particularly video CPE) will be more generic with similar functionality. Server-based functions will grow in importance and be more of a differentiator,” Rolls said. “We, of course, have a transition period to vault over, requiring hybrid boxes that can conserve bandwidth. But more and more CPE will become commoditized, and we will move toward delivering our products on common CPE or consumer-owned devices.”
Buckeye and BendBroadband are both well into that transition period characterized by the use of hybrid boxes (which Holmes mentioned). They are two of the first North American operators to launch a whole-home DVR service based on Arris’ Moxi hybrid gateway.
With that gateway launched, Buckeye’s next CPE goals are tied up with the desire to reclaim analog bandwidth. The company is looking for a low-cost QAM/IP device to support conversion to all-digital, Jensen said, hoping Buckeye too will be able to do so under an FCC waiver.
Looking farther out, the issue will be in-home distribution of content and services. Jensen expects Buckeye will be exploring connecting with federated CDNs, and then also “app development on devices such as game consoles, WD TV Live, Roku, Boxee, etc.”
“In the near term,” Holmes said, “I anticipate that the CPE development will favor hybrid gateways and applications to front-end the experience. Once the back office catches up and HTML5 becomes strong, the capability of the CPE will return to a basic decode and paint network element. The difficulty is managing the changing back office, uncertainty around what long-term role the box needs to play and how to keep focus on the consumers that we need to retain without increasing costs.
“Let’s face it: Subscriber retention for video is daunting; anything we can pack in a box to keep a customer engaged will produce a win.”
What are the effects of increasing IP video traffic on the network and the business?
“Consumer consumption of IP video will continue to experience strong growth, whether that be OTT video or MSO-delivered video,” Rolls said. “Cable will leverage its advantages, which include the ability to deliver ultra-high-quality video to a device of the consumer’s choice, leverage our portfolio of content to deliver some of the most compelling programming available, and provide that content in a bundle of services that is convenient and easy to use.”
That will necessitate more than just getting the content distributed.
“Quality is facilitated by nailed-up bandwidth (via MPEG-TS over dedicated QAMs), or via QoS if in IP,” Rolls said.
“Traffic continues to force significant network upgrades, working to define the necessary quality of experience attainable through network management,” Jensen said.
In the longer term for Buckeye, “the solution begins in the home and migrates to broad availability,” Jensen said. Buckeye’s challenges will include discovering what a company its size can do; the company will have to evaluate “the implications of becoming a regional video provider,” he said.
From Comcast’s perspective, though, it’s “too early to tell, exactly. Lot’s of things happening in all aspects of IP video,” Werner said.
What is the status of current networks with regard to adding business services?
Buckeye launched commercial services in 1998 and now has nearly 4,000 fiber endpoints in its network, Jensen noted. The company is expanding outside of its cable footprint using SIP. Specifically for the hospitality market, Buckeye is also implementing Pro:Idiom, the content protection system that enables MSOs to provide service without set-top boxes. Finally, the company is developing support for call center and enterprise-hosted solutions.
Down the line, the company expects to explore the ability to offer hosted and managed services, along with streaming business video packages, Jensen said.
Rolls said: “We have invested in our network to enable business phone, PRI and SIP trunking, Metro Ethernet, security, and Web and email hosting, as well as managed Internet routers. In the carrier segment, Charter Business currently offers cell backhaul and carrier landline services. We have a number of exciting new business products in the works and will be rolling those out over the next few quarters.”
BendBroadband is in a unique position, Holmes said, “with a LEED-certified Tier 3 colocation data center. Our priority is to bring comprehensive solutions to our business customers using the trinity of deep fiber reach, virtual data center products and excellence in customer service.”
“The cable industry in general,” Holmes observed, “is perfectly positioned to appeal to the SMB market. We generally have the relationship, a variety of reliable connectivity solutions, and paired with a data center relationship or facility – the blend is incredibly compelling. Customers want to focus on their area of talent and not on quickly changing software requirements, bandwidth needs and hardware scaling. The cloud is growing in the SMB market, and strong connectivity solutions like Metro Ethernet and symmetric business coax services will enable business to focus and succeed.”
What new features can we expect that integrate different elements of the bundle?
Remote DVR control, for starters, said Jensen. Buckeye is also “considering support for apps on legacy devices such as Facebook, Picasa, games [and the] bundling of niche content through IP streaming.”
Eventually, Jensen expects to offer features such as home management and security, unified messaging, and customer self-care.
Werner said, “You’re already seeing a lot of them, including both the Web and applications for second screens and companion devices.”
Is there still an imperative to make MSOs look like a monolithic system? What is the status of advertising systems?
“While Canoe may be shrinking, Charter will apply the interactive tools and learning to local advertising opportunities. It’s not imperative to have monolithic advanced ad systems, but common standards on multiple platforms do assist with the process,” Rolls said.
EBIF appears to be the baseline common standard.
Rolls said: “Charter nationwide EBIF support forms the basis for shared-MSO and Charter-specific iTV applications. We look forward to enabling applications such as RFI commercial overlays, telescoping to on-demand content, and polling and voting.”
Buckeye is completing a conversion to HD ad production, Jensen said, and is considering pre and post advertising on free VOD, in addition to telescoping and interactive advertising. In the long term, he said, Buckeye would like to link advertising across platforms, including print.
The Cable Show
What are you looking forward to seeing?
“Meaningful discussion on programming rights for new client devices,” Jensen said.
“The NCTA Show (as I still call it) is the quintessentialnetworking event – be it MSOs, vendors, programmers or others. So I look forward to hearing what others are working on and exchanging ideas,” Rolls said.
“CE and cable integration. So CE devices that are leveraging DLNA to provide compatibility with our DLNA-capable devices,” Werner said.
Search and discovery
What are you doing to improve search and discovery in program guides?
“New technologies [that] support search and personalization will be important in the long term. This may extend across competing platforms,” Jensen said. “Decisions must be made to be the aggregator and try to continue a walled garden approach.”
Charter considers this area a big deal. According to Rolls: “With the ever-growing amounts of content, both in terms of volume and new alternate sources (from MVPD and DVD-only a few years ago to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, direct programmer apps, digital lockers, etc.), proper search and discovery is top of mind for Charter.
“To start to address this consumer need, we launched our searchable directory of online content on Charter.net/TV last November. A customer can search across authenticated cable programming (HBO, Turner, Epix, etc.) alongside free OTT (e.g., Hulu), subscription OTT (e.g., Netflix and Hulu Plus) and a la carte OTT (e.g., Amazon). Integrating content greatly simplifies the consumer’s search and discovery process. We plan to continue to enhance Charter.net/TV this year and plan to have a similar ideology (programming rights notwithstanding) as we launch additional functionality later in the year,” Rolls added.
“I firmly believe that our job is to deliver an entertainment experience, not a hunk of plastic and metal with a grid guide and cable card,” Holmes said. “The back office and continuity between consumer devices will be the standard. The real value comes when a gateway aggregates media from over-the-top providers, local DVR, on-demand and linear services. At that point, search and the order of presentation makes the difference. The barrier, though, is making it easy. The remote isn’t going to work – a companion tablet or smartphone app may be the breakthrough – and it identifies the viewer. Perhaps the next round of set-top box will have a camera to recognize its audience – television sets too. It has to be a transparent experience and provide apparent value to the consumer.”
“We have launched search and recommendations on many of our platforms and will continue to evolve enhanced forms of content discovery,” Werner said.
How does cable evolve from TV Everywhere to anything/anywhere?
First, cable has to establish a clear rights environment for programming, Jensen said, adding that he’s not interested in the long term with the authentication and handoff.
“We need to be the marketer of services – not just the conduit,” he said.
Rolls added, “Charter is encouraged by the technology framework embodied by DECE and UV, and [we] believe this starts to align a very diverse solutions space we have today for authentication and DRM.”
Holmes noted: “I’m not sold on the value of ‘everything, everywhere’ yet. There is a demographic that wants the content on the go, but the real value, in my opinion, is in footprint – abstract the viewing experience so the content is available in the home on any device. I see the hybrid gateway with transcoder or a sidecar being the ticket for the near term. Long term, the indicator will be market value for the out-of-home experience beyond what the programmer offers.”
What have you seen on TV recently that you'd recommend?
“You’ll find an odd assortment of programming on our family’s TiVo box,” Rolls said, “including ‘60 Minutes,’ ‘Amazing Race,’ ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Colbert Report,’ to name a few.”
“‘Smash,’” Werner said.
Charting an evolutionary course.