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Whither CableLabs?

Tue, 09/01/2009 - 10:11am
Brian Santo

Two of CableLabs’ most recent mega-projects – DOCSIS 3.0 and tru2way – are well into the implementation stage. Dick Green, who directed the operation for almost as long as it’s existed, has passed the torch to Paul Liao. Now what?

Nothing is formalized yet – the guy’s only been on the job for a month – but Liao is confident CableLabs can still make major contributions to the cable industry.

He also held out the possibility that CableLabs might entertain a new model of how it might work with the industry.

But first: the projects. Two of the more interesting avenues of inquiry the organization is taking, Liao said, include the possible opportunity to help develop a common way of implementing the TV Everywhere concept, and there may be a role for CableLabs in helping to define common, standardized back office systems.

TV Everywhere is the concept of taking cable network programming – programming that is most definitely not available for free on the Internet – and making it available through the broadband pipe, but only to video subscribers.

TV Everywhere is Time Warner Cable’s name for the arrangement. Comcast is calling it “On Demand Online,” and reports are that DirecTV wants to replicate the service and adopt Comcast’s terminology.

TV Everywhere gives customers a valuable incentive to maintain their video subscriptions, rather than attempt to get all of their video for free online – because if TV Everywhere works, a good chunk of the best content isn’t ever going to be available for free online.

And TV Everywhere might not be the whole of it, either. “CableLabs is investigating how we can contribute to the whole world of Internet technologies,” Liao said.

Meanwhile, back office systems are diverse, disparate, and mostly proprietary, Liao observed. “They are complex and difficult to standardize.”

CableLabs might be able to help by coordinating a standardization process. “You get scale when you get standardization,” he said, and not just for North America, but globally.

Technology is one thing, he explained, “but the issue is: Can you execute? In the end, that’s dependent on operations support systems.”

Existing systems are doing a good job so far, but the world is moving faster and faster, the speed of execution is now an issue, and that may not be as fast as possible with a different back office system for each service platform.

Back office systems have to be converged. “The challenge is to evolve a system so that it’s not a complete rebuild,” Liao said.

As for the way CableLabs works, Liao is keeping things close to his vest. But he noted that when CableLabs was founded, most operators had small engineering departments, but now many MSOs have huge engineering staffs.

“CableLabs is in an envious position in that we can draw on that resource,” Liao said.

Asked if that hints at the possibility of a new model of operation, Liao offered an elliptical response that suggests CableLabs was thinking about the question long before CED asked it: CableLabs released a reference implementation for tru2way (OCAP) middleware and published it as open source, Liao responded. “That allows us to draw on engineering resources well beyond our industry,” he said.

"Cable has long been a closed, insular community, driven by some very smart people. But the computer industry has shown that it’s possible to thrive by opening up platforms (the PC, the iPhone) to whole new groups of smart people, to try to amplify all of that brainpower out there. It will be interesting to see if Liao can leverage that model further for cable’s benefit.

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