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Breakdown in Beantown

Wed, 06/06/2012 - 1:19am
Brian Santo and Mike Robuck

Five areas shine under the spotlight at The Cable Show in Boston.

The cable industry is responding to consumer demands and countering the competition, both traditional and Internet-based, with a heavy arsenal of services and features.

There were numerous examples of how the cable industry is rapidly evolving to improve the consumers experience while adding cash to the bottom line.

That was on the floor at The Cable Show 2012, which the National Cable & Telecommunications Association hosted over three days in Boston last month. In technical sessions, the industry offered an almost equal number of possibilities of how it can continue to evolve to provide far more services well into the future.

Cable Show 2012
“The one thing that has stood out for me at the show is that some of the concepts that we’ve been kicking around as an industry are finally coming to fruition from a production and commercialization standpoint,” said Cox Communications chief technology officer Kevin Hart. “Things like TV Everywhere apps, some of the new UIs, some of the embedded smart TVs with program capability and new Wi-Fi capabilities are finally in the market and driving customer satisfaction and revenue for the companies.”

Cable Show 2012The cable industry has come up with creative solutions to beat back the over-the-top competition and differentiate itself from the satellite and telco competitors. To be sure, the competitors are also using things like HTML5 and cloud-based services, as well as scrambling to get their TV Everywhere houses in order, but cable’s rate of innovation has moved into warp speed. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, during a one-on-one session with NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell, commended the cable industry for its innovative efforts.

Here are five key areas that stood out at The Cable Show.

The cloud: Comcast’s X1 lands in Boston
At last year’s Cable Show, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts provided the first public display of the company’s cloud-based Xcalibur project, which was renamed X1 this year. Boston is slated for the first deployment of X1, with a broader national rollout to follow this year.

X1 has been touted as the next big thing when it comes to the user experience, and show attendees flocked to Comcast’s booth on the show floor to see the demo.

Comcast's X1With X1, Comcast is integrating customized apps and social media features with its traditional video services, allowing customers to use their handhelds not only as remote controls, but also as companion devices with apps that can complement what’s on their TV screens.

The new X1 remote control app enables customers to use motion and gesture control to drive their TV experience through the touchscreen of their handheld iPhones and iPod Touches.

In addition, customers can use their devices’ virtual keyboards to search through content and play it. Demonstrations of the app make it clear that searching in this manner is significantly faster than using a traditional remote control.

“The X1 remote app unites the TV screen with customers’ mobile devices by creating an integrated experience between the customers’ swipe controls on their device and the viewing experience on the TV – they truly mirror each other,” said Sree Kotay, senior vice president and chief software architect for Comcast Cable.

Steve Reynolds, senior vice president of CPE and home networking for Comcast, said during the session “Speed to market: Enabling faster innovation cycles” that Comcast has benefitted from residential cloud-based services by being able to update set-top box software from the cloud instead of downloading them to each device, which can take several months.

Cable Show 2012
During the session “Strictly business: Products and platforms for driving cable’s growth,” panelists Mark Bowser, executive vice president and CFO for Cox Communications, Steven Miron, CEO of Bright House Networks, and John Schanz, executive vice president and chief network officer for Comcast, spoke about how the cloud is enabling new managed services in a cost-effective manner.

What’s next for HFC?
With bandwidth demands increasing along the lines of 50 percent to 60 percent year-over-year, the cable operator industry is keenly aware that there needs to be a consensus on what networks and technologies will be needed down the road to keep up with that bandwidth demand.

The obvious option is to extend the legs of DOCSIS, which could lead to capacity of 10 gigabits in the downstream and 2 gigabits in the upstream. While there are other possibilities, including EPoC (Ethernet PON over Coax), which is a standard that is being developed by the IEEE, some of the DOCSIS vendors joined forces during a Cable Show session to lay out a roadmap for the evolution of DOCSIS.

John Chapman, CTO of Cisco’s Cable Access Business Unit, took the lead delivering some of the results of a massive, 185-page paper co-authored with Robert Howald, a member of the CTO office at Motorola Mobility, and Michael Emmendorfer, Arris’ senior director of solution architecture and strategy.

Chapman talked about improving the upstream, including expanding the current upstream allocation from 5 to 42 MHz up to 85 MHz (the mid split), expanding beyond 85 MHz to 200 MHz, or even 400 MHz (the high split), or some combination of those two with a separate allocation above 1 GHz (the top split).

“Logic suggests the mid split or the high split,” Chapman said. “We don’t like the top split – there’s just too much attenuation.”

For the short-term roadmap, he and his fellow authors recommend that cable operators make more efficient use of what they have available now, but eventually they should plan on expanding not just to 1.5 GHz, but even beyond to 1.7 GHz.

Doing all of that, Chapman said, “we think we can get up to 10 Gbps on DOCSIS someday.”

Howald, expanding on that, said the upstream might get up to 1 Gbps.

“We know it will not be easy, but the capacity is there,” he said.

As cable operators move forward, almost every option they have will have some sort of effect on their noise budgets, Howald explained, which under some combinations of options might get taxed very badly.

One of the noisiest environments is, of course, the home, and the CMTS vendors suggested considering taking the home right out of the equation by introducing what they referred to as point-of-entry gateways – gateways that mount outside the home and insulate the HFC network from the noise in the home.

Ayham Al-Banna, systems architect in the office of the CSO at Arris, boiled the recommendations from the paper into a simple roadmap that began with a Step 0, in recognition that that particular recommendation is something that operators are already doing: use available spectrum efficiently.

Step 1 is additional node segmentation and splits, which he acknowledged gets too expensive. Step 2 included a stew of options that include adding bandwidth, going for the high split, enhancing DOCSIS, adding new FEC schemes and moving to a new PHY – possibly OFDM. Step 3, he said, is FTTH.

Overall, the vendors agreed on 10 recommendations (with some disagreement on a smaller number of other recommendations), but the next step in the overall initiative is to build consensus among cable operators before presenting the roadmap to CableLabs.

Cable ops team up on Wi-Fi pact
Subscribers from Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks, Comcast, Cablevision and Cox Communications will be able to log in to each other’s Wi-Fi hotspots, thanks to a new roaming agreement that was announced at The Cable Show. The deal among five of the top six largest cable operators in the nation will give their respective subscribers access to more than 50,000 Wi-Fi hotspots.

In the largest roaming agreement to date, the participating cable operators currently offer Wi-Fi hotspots located in New York City and the surrounding tri-state area, Los Angeles, Tampa, Orlando, and Philadelphia. The operators plan to continue to grow the number of Wi-Fi hotspots and expand into several additional cities.

The shared network has both indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots located in popular, high-traffic locations, such as shopping districts, cafes, malls, arenas, restaurants, parks and beaches. Subscribers will be able to find the nearest Wi-Fi hotspots by visiting the Wi-Fi homepage of their current cable provider or by going to the CableWiFi site.

With the new roaming agreement, Wi-Fi users can take advantage of a new network name, CableWiFi, when they are outside of their home markets.

The first implementation of the new roaming agreement was already completed as Bright House Networks and Cablevision launched CableWiFi alongside their branded Wi-Fi networks in the New York City area and central Florida areas in early May. Over the next few months, the CableWiFi network name will be added by each of the cable companies to their branded Wi-Fi hotspots.

When traveling outside of their home markets, high-speed Internet subscribers of the participating companies will look for the CableWiFi network, and through a simple sign-on process, connect using the same credentials as when accessing their providers’ Wi-Fi networks. In the coming months, users will be able to have their devices auto-connect to the Internet when located in any of the CableWiFi hotspots.

TV Everywhere taking off … really
Cable operators have long maintained that technology for TV Everywhere to multi-screens is in place, but the content rights issues stood in the way. At The Cable Show, several executives said they believe the content owners are starting to see the value in letting their content be viewed on multiple screens, and that more video content will most likely become available later this year.

Verizon Wireless unveiled its “viewdini” app during a general session panel at The Cable Show, and Comcast was the first announced cable operator partner.

Verizon Wireless' viewdini
Viewdini searches and collects content from various sources and puts it at the fingertips of viewers – for free – over Verizon Wireless’ LTE network. Announced partners, aside from Comcast, include Hulu Plus, mSpot and Netflix. The app also works with websites that have free video programming available.

“It’s a mobile video portal for aggregation and delivery of mobile content,” said Verizon Wireless President and CEO Dan Mead. “So there’s a very unique thing going on right now, and that’s the desire of consumers to be able to absorb video on any device that they may have, anytime that they want, and that aligned with Verizon Wireless’ high-speed LTE network. With what has occurred in the tablet and smartphone industry, this all came together. We’ve been working on this for a couple of years.”

In addition to searching and collecting the content, Mead said viewdini also functions as a research tool by allowing users to find more information on characters in a film or additional movies that they’ve appeared in.

Cable Show 2012
“It’s really all about discovery and getting the content to people where they want to consume it,” said Comcast Cable President and CEO Neil Smit, who was also on the panel with Mead. “We felt that as the content becomes more mobile and people want to consume it in different places, different content whenever or wherever they want to, that Verizon Wireless would be a great partner to help our customers discover the content.”

Cable Show 2012In addition to letting customers know what content is available from content providers, viewdini also tells them whether it is available at no additional charge, by subscription, to rent or for purchase.

HTML5: Improving user interfaces
Even though HTML5 is still evolving, creating user interfaces (UIs) and other apps using the Web-based markup language is feasible now.

At The Cable Show session “Your wish is its command: New possibilities for technology interfaces,” Comcast’s chief scientist of metadata platform and search services Amit Bagga demonstrated an app for companion devices that TV viewers can use to enter – by keyboard or by voice – searches for content.

The way the app operates would be familiar to those who’ve used Google’s voice input or Siri on Apple’s iPhone. Bagga showed the app responding to voice commands such as “What baseball game is on tomorrow at 7 o’clock?” – with the app responding by delivering the navigation guide listings, in this case for baseball games being broadcast on that day and time.

Navneeth Kannan, senior director of systems engineering for Motorola Mobility, said the industry would inevitably have to choose a browser to support on the set-top. The case for an HTML5 browser is that it is already familiar to developers, it can be made to work with OCAP and it will enable easy UI revision. The challenge is that HTML5 is still in development, and it doesn’t have set-top-specific support features yet.

There are nitty-gritty details to consider, Kannan said. Graphics resources need to be available, not only to the browser, but also to the platform – for closed captioning, for example. There are considerations for memory allocation and management, as well as for widget authentication and storage. The industry must still develop stronger support for EBIF.

Despite the work that has to be done, though, Kannan said: “This is real. We've ported three different browsers. We can do it now. HTML5 apps on a browser are feasible now.”

In a separate session, Kurt Hoppe, director of smart TV innovation and alliances at LG Electronics, said LG and Cablevision have tested an HTML5-based app that delivers 400 live linear TV channels from a cloud over the Internet to an LG smart TV. The service uses adaptive bit rate streaming and needs an authenticated cable modem from the cable operator in order to function.

Michael McMahon, Charter Communications’ vice president of Web experience and application strategy, said that part of the excitement about HTML5 is that HTML makes it possible to write applications once and then do only minor tweaks for other platforms, so that you end up with a minimal code base. The problem is that there's no such thing as a TV-specific, reusable framework.

“Everyone has their own code supporting every different tablet and smartphone and tweaking those for each iteration of the device. We don't need to reinvent everything every time,” McMahon said. “It is possible to build a core framework.

“The ambition is, if an MSO wants to put in brand and skin, and effects, it can do that. But the idea is to do extreme reuse of the underlying core. This isn't OCAP; this is the framework above that. This is less HTML5 and more CSS3 and JavaScript for the UI.” (CSS3, or Cascading Style Sheets, is a sort of layout framework for documents created in markup languages such as HTML5).

There are other areas of commonality, but they have to be coordinated, McMahon said. “CableLabs, to me, is the obvious answer to this.”

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