2014 CTO Roundtable cuts a wide swath across the industry
This year’s roundtable is chock full of the cable industry’s hot topics and trends from the CTOs that are the movers and shakers across the cable landscape. The large panel assembled here included tidbits from the CTO panel at The Cable Show in Los Angeles that was moderated by Leslie Ellis, as well as additional interviews after the show. Where possible, we’ve blended together responses to similar questions. Lastly, some of the replies were edited for clarity and length.
CED: What are your top two or three engineering priorities this year?
Tony Werner, CTO, Comcast Cable: For this year we’ve got a lot of initiatives that are very important for us, but one is the XI platform that we’ve been on a steady progression of rolling out. Rolling it out at scale is a big deal to us and so we intend to do that. And adding features, a lot of which we’re showing here (at The Cable Show). The next big one happens to be cloud TV and that really is providing a cloud DVR service.
Joe Jensen, CTO, Buckeye Cable-System: I wish I only had a top three. As I tick down the major items, we’re still moving into major analog reclamation activity. That’s going to be consuming a lot of time and energy from a network and engineering perspective this year. Certainly an IP video strategy solidification is going to be pretty high on the list.
We’ve got node and laser upgrades across the system that we continue to press forward with. Those will, one, allow us to more easily segment nodes as we need to, and two, upstream laser replacement is critical as we start enhancing the upstream speeds.
We’re looking for some new capabilities utilizing the full spectrum analysis aspects of the new chipsets in the cable modems. We would really like to significantly reduce our truck rolls and we see that as one major area.
That’s probably more than three already, but the last one is what alternatives are there for delivering local broadcast stations to our customers other than retrans? Is there a technical solution, can we find an efficient way of getting off-air antenna established in the home, and integrate that in with our programming guide and DVR functionality?
Kevin Hart, CTO, Cox Communications: I would say No. 1 is our continued focus on the customer experience and that’s all around the availability and reliability of the network and products and services. That’s always kind of our top goal.
No. 2 is network next generation readiness.
So we’re continuing on an all-digital path right now because we have to free up the spectrum for 3.1, or Gigasphere. Getting ready for DOCSIS 3.1 is a key component of our network readiness. Those are the two key things from that perspective.
We’re also moving forward on IMS and a few other components to enhance our capabilities on the network. A year or two ago, the second one would have been product delivery/ product development. We delivered as many products last year as we did in the prior two years in terms of throughput for Contour and products like that.
The last is not very glamorous, but it's backoffice readiness. So a couple of different components for Cox Business, which is our commercial services, putting in a new sales force automation or management, bringing in some of the billing backoffice, but also trying to standardize our video middleware backoffice so we can plug and play with the different platforms and our partners across the industry.
Ralph Brown, CTO, CableLabs: I think it’s pretty clear that one of the priorities that they (MSOs) have really emphasized is DOCSIS 3.1, and we’re right on track for getting that work done. In fact at the show I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the manufacturers are moving in the development of the product.
So that was really encouraging.
Wireless in general, but more specifically Wi-Fi is where we’re spending a lot of our time these days. Both around public Wi-Fi access points and roaming, but as well working on spectrum issues and trying to work with the NCTA and FCC on getting more spectrum for unlicensed use and in particular use by Wi-Fi. Then community Wi-Fi activities as well. Essentially access points within the customer’s home and making those be available as part of the overall Wi-Fi network that users can take advantage of.
Balan Nair, CTO, Liberty Global: Across video, we have been very bullish with what we call the Horizon family of products, which has now launched in four countries. Cloud DVR we launched in Switzerland last fall and we’re going to scale that to a number of countries this year as well. Those are two big things on the video side.
On the broadband side, we made a commitment that every country that we operate in would have a full size product for data that would be a minimum of 100 megabits, and for the most part it’s coming in between 120 and 140. So we’ve spent a significant amount of time with that.
The third big one for us is mobile reach. We recently launched in Switzerland and then we’ll be launching in the Netherlands next month (May). We already have our mobile offering in Belgium, in the UK and in South America in Chile. That’s a very big part of our core strategy.
Yvette Kanouff, formerly executive vice president, engineering and technology, Cablevision: The first would be the quality of experience for our customers. It’s a big year to focus on having the best service for our customers. Having so many cloud services, we have to make sure that we have a unified back end. Doing things like higher storage for our cloud DVR as well as offering more tuners. We’re at 15 tuners with our cloud DVR service. And focusing on SLAs, really focusing on what the reliability is for each service as opposed to just the feature and functionality.
The second big focus for us is connectivity.
That’s a broad topic, but connectivity in the home. We launched our 802.11ac routers and we’re doing community Wi-Fi. The next is in home communication capabilities that should be very Wi-Fi centric for our customers.
Mike LaJoie, CTO, Time Warner Cable: So for us the big focus from a technology perspective this year on video is to follow on the cloud based Navigator that we launched last year. We’re at about four and half million boxes now and we’ll be in about six and half million by summer. We have a new HTMLbased guide that we’re going to try to get to customers during summer.
We still have a lot of new platforms that we’re launching on our Time Warner Cable TV. We have hundreds of streaming channels up to the iPad and to the Android platforms.
It’s out on Roku. It’s out on Fan TV and more platforms will be announced this year; so, much more of all of your programming on any device that you want.
On the data side, we’ve begun aggressively rolling out CCAP. So we’re focusing on the 24 channels of DOCSIS turned up on the CCAP platform. We’re going to a 300 megabit product offering in a couple of markets – in LA and New York – this year, and then broadening that out next year.
On the commercial side, we finished last year with over 8,000 buildings directly connected to fiber on our plant, and we’ll have over 9,000 by the end of this year. So a big focus on driving commercial business.
Overall, just doubling down on reliability and making sure that the plant is in great shape and that all of the applications are running solid and that we’re really delivering a great quality of experience to our customers.
CED: Wi-Fi has become an increasingly important service for cable operators. Where are you with Wi-Fi and what is the impact of the ruling by the Federal Communications Commission for additional unlicensed spectrum?
Brown: They (FCC) recently announced opening up 100 megahertz in the 5 gig spectrum.
We were involved in providing the technical analysis that was necessary to really satisfy the FCC that there was a good strategy there, and that it was going to be a good move. We were happy to see that the FCC agreed to do that. That’s going to add to the unlicensed spectrum capacity that cable operators will be able to take advantage of.
Nair: That additional 100 megahertz is amazing.
Wi-Fi is now becoming the No. 1 call driver in our call centers, primarily over things that we absolutely have no control over; things like interference from having concrete walls. In some cases there are things we can do to help like channel hopping, et cetera.
With the capabilities of 8011.ac and the additional 100 megahertz, I think it will help consumers significantly, and it will help us as well. Suddenly the in-home experience is no longer going to be the limiting factor. It used to be that even when we had a 100-megabit product and somebody had an old 11.n that operated only in 2.4, they just didn’t hit a 100 megabits because you had a crappy access point.
Werner: We all feel that first of all that the FCC did a very good job there. They had a lot of people weighing in on both sides and they came up with a very good answer for the consumer. Wi-Fi is becoming a much larger used service. It’s one that is used both in the home and out of the home. It’s great to take DOCSIS 3.1 up to a gigabit per second but you can't always get it to the devices. Most of devices that are being manufactured out there are capable of operating in these new bands, so I think it’s great.
Jensen: We have a managed Wi-Fi solution that we sell to our residential customers. We have a number of venues in our footprint that we have established hotspots that are available to our subscribers and non-subscribers on a purchase basis. Wi-Fi is a tough animal right now in my opinion. It is tough from an engineering perspective to plan a network when the fundamental technology specifications change every two years.
So we’ve gone from N to AC now, and as the tea leaves indicate we’re moving to – I believe – AH next. How do you plan for a network when you have that kind of volatility? That’s a real challenge.
And then on top of that, you’ve got LTE unlicensed that may be impeding the ability to provide Wi-Fi in the traditional sense. There are a lot of factors in this, and as a smaller operator we aren’t as attuned to the transport corridors.
So we’re going to continue to watch what is happening. As we’ve seen the larger operators cooperate, the smaller MSOs have not really been able to play in that and we’re hoping that in some form or fashion we can federate to allow our customers to roam and allow our other MSO customers to roam into our area. So there are just a lot of variables there.
Hart: For us I think it will be a combination of both customer and community Wi-Fi.
We’ll be making more announcements in the near future. Particularly around what we’re trying to do from a community and metro perspective and then we’re also taking a look at the in-home Wi-Fi service, trying to improve the service and capability.
Kanouff: I think that there’s so much that we can do with Wi-Fi. There’s no doubt that it’s really becoming so much more important in our service offering. As to what services we offer, there’s so much flexibility and we’re looking at all of those things; what services we can use to further stretch Wi-Fi and give our customers more flexibility.
CED: Does it seem feasible for a cable operator to use a “Wi-Fi first” strategy that adopts Wi-Fi over cellular?
Kanouff: As far as specifically being a replacement service for LTE, that’s not what we’re looking at at Cablevision, but we’re certainly looking at the broad gamut of the other services and what we can do for connectivity.
Brown: I think there’s a lot of interest there.
We’ve done some analysis of the business model. It really depends on what the economics are for the MVNO relationship you have. How much do you pay for the macro network minutes? If you’re going on a Wi-Fi strategy there’s a certain threshold you have to get to in order for the business case to have a positive cash flow.
The sensitivity seems to be around the amount of offload. When you get above a certain number of subscribers then the business case makes sense. So that threshold is really where you need to determine does the business case make sense? Our members are very interested. I think they’re looking at how that works. There’s a certain level of robustness we have to get in terms of the Wi-Fi network and that gets at this whole issue of carrier grade Wi-Fi. There are number of pieces that go into that, but it is very interesting and we’ve been taking a very serious look at it.
And have been looking at what makes sense from the business model perspective.
Jensen: Wi-Fi First is interesting. You’re never going to have, from what I can see, a Wi-Fi standard that allows you to effectively address a moving vehicle. That’s certainly off the table.
Being able to have a Wi-Fi First strategy as part of an operator, that’s certainly interesting.
Again we’re somewhat handicapped because we don’t have that high traffic concentration in our footprint aside of a few venues.
CED: Mike LaJoie previously mentioned CCAP, but where is your company in regards to CCAP, DOCSIS 3.1 and the migration to IP? How do these play together, and how do operators manage the network for a graceful transition?
Hart: We continue to experiment with CCAP in our lab. We have a little more flexibility given the capacity in our network that we’ll probably be more of a follower with that particular technology solution. Given where we are in terms of our preparation, I think in 2015 we’ll have another one or two vendors that will have additional prototypes and we’ll continue evaluate CCAP in 2015.
[Cox CEO Pat Esser] referenced this and you’ll hear more about this from us in the coming weeks, but the capability to leverage our existing network to provide gigabit service to all of our customers over time is what appeals to us the most in regards to 3.1.
Brown: I think CCAP is the near term evolution.
What we’re seeing is the density of the technology is getting to the point where you can synthesize the whole spectrum out of one port. So this idea of having external combining networks doesn’t make a lot of sense. Integrating all of those things into this integrated architecture called CCAP is something that we’re going to see in the next year, two years, and three years in terms of deployments.
Along that timeline there are a few DOCISIS 3.1 linecards. I saw where Arris was showing OFDM downstream out their of existing equipment. So this idea that you could potentially get DOCSIS 3.1 anyway with existing hardware is kind of an interesting concept.
We’ll see CCAP coming in the near term and then DOCSIS 3.1 being added to that mix. The timeline of when do you retire the QAM video channels really gets to when have you started turning off those QAM set-top boxes and when do you think you’ll be done with that? That whole transition period, I like to make the analogy that it was sort of like the analog to digital transition that took us a long time to get through. This QAM video to IP video transition will be a similar because we have such an installed base of devices that you need to migrate through the network.
Werner: I think it’s looking like in Q2 of 2015 as when we’ll start having the first silicon provider with (3.1) equipment that is already built and constructed. Then probably by Q3 and Q4 we’ll have the other two silicon providers for CPE. I think that’s pretty safe. So I think we’ll be able to start buying modems certainly in the year 2015. Then it depends on which manufacturer of CMTS gear. There are some that are saying they’ll have at least downstream in trial in 2015 and most of them are saying that they’ll have product in early 2016, or the middle of 2016. So probably 2016 is the year for services to be looked at on it, but the hardware seems to be on a very good path.
I think between now and then what most of us are is doing is spectrum planning and the nice thing about 3.1, of course, is that it's backwards compatible to 3.0. I think as much as anything for most us it's hub site planning, critical infrastructure, making sure that we have growth capacity, and spectrum planning, which is moving stuff around so that you’ve got the spectrum.
Jensen: CCAP theoretically sounds very good.
I think as we start seeing products come out we hope to be fast followers on that. A lot of this is still driven by the cost per QAM and the cost per bit, and so as we move in that direction that will certainly be one of the major items that we’ll address.
The other is moving our DOCIS network into much more of an IT environment in managing the packets so to speak in a way that is consistent across the network. We certainly do see some value there. Timing wise we’ll see where the costs come out and how we want to make that migration work.
I have mixed concerns about 3.1. As an engineer looking at the standard QAM/ DOCSIS stack, you’re losing 15 percent of your spectrum just for guard bands. DOCSIS 3.1 promises a significant increase in the bits per hertz, which is certainly attractive.
The challenge for operators and ourselves is that to take full advantage of the DOCSIS 3.1 spec in the downstream you really need about another 6dB, and I think the promise that the low density parity check will get us about halfway there, but we’re going to have to find some way to get another 3dB of signalto- noise to make this work.
CED: What’s next for CPE?
Hart: Right now we’re working through our CPE roadmap. Obviously we’ve made some decisions around the Contour environment.
With our all-digital project we're looking towards an HD DTA, and in the lab we’re also evaluating just different IP and Wi-Fi enabled CPE, as well as leveraging the RDK.
Jensen: I think we’re really looking at a tiered approach. We’re still very interested in deploying a high end, whole-home solution.
We’re currently deploying the Arris Moxi product. We see this IP hybrid device as being the standard fare going forward, but as the capabilities develop that device could ultimately support network PVR, it could support a lot of capabilities that we currently see in the higher end products. I think as we see in almost any industry, a lot of this is going to be moving to the cloud over time.
We filed a waiver with the FCC in March for a hybrid DTA, IP device. The waiver would allow us to deploy this device and use the DTA functionality to support video QAMs, but use an IP component to begin the migration to an all-IP network. We’re hopeful we’ll get the waiver. Not only for us, but for other operators this would provide an efficient way of transitioning between QAM video and IP video.
CED: Your first thought when you heard that Comcast wanted to acquire Time Warner Cable?
Jensen: My first thought was now “Well, now we’re surrounded.” In our footprint we have Comcast to the north and Time Warner to the south. We’ll see how that plays out. I’m not sure how the joint venture (SpinCo) will play into this. We’re just waiting to see. We hope there’s a continued positive experience in both of those directions. We’ve been competing in some areas with both of them on the commercial side, so I think things will continue in that direction.
Hart: Obviously there’s a lot of consolidation in the marketplace but there’s also a lot of collaboration around industry platforms and scalability.
Cox is fortunate to have good working relationships with most, if not all, of the MSOs but particularly with Comcast and Time Warner Cable.
So we look forward to partnering with them around standardized platforms for the industry.
CED: What are the last two apps you’ve downloaded?
Hart: They’re both sports related. Strava, which helps track things like running and cycling, and is GPS enabled. And then Score Soccer; all three of my kids play soccer so it’s a real time soccer app that you can use on weekends when you’re tracking games or when you’re remote.
Jensen: At least one of those is pretty easy.
The NCTA Cable Show app, which saved my bacon a few times when I was trying to find booths. The one before that was Scribd.
It’s kind of the virtual library where you can check out a wide variety of e-books. Scribd is a monthly subscription and you have access to thousands of e-books.
Brown: I’ve downloaded the Metawatch app.
Metawatch is one of these smart watches that has some interesting capabilities, so lots of things are at your wrist. It’s very convenient for notifications and things like that. Rather than having to be so obvious as to haul your smartphone out from your pocket, now you can be very subtle and look at your watch.
The other one is the Narrative app. Its a little wearable that has a camera on it and every 30 seconds it takes a picture and then it creates your life narrative. It records all of these pictures in the cloud so you can go back and review the highlights of your day and all sorts of things. It’s the ultimate in narcissism. It’s all about me. ■