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Expo 2004: CTOs talk up next-gen networks, CableCARDs

Wed, 06/16/2004 - 8:00pm
Karen Brown

Orlando, Fla. — The road to cable's future appears to have plenty of twists and turns, and a group of technology leaders here tried to offer some driving directions Wednesday.

The CTO roundtable's discussion at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo traveled through familiar territory of all-digital future networks, bandwidth management and the coming of retail-ready cable devices. But it also took side trips into some new territory, including the possibility of creating a connection to cellular telephone service.

One hot topic was the work surrounding the Next Generation Network Architecture (NGNA) scheme, which Cox Communications, Comcast Cable and Time Warner Cable have been quietly working on, details of which were exposed in the May 2004 issue of CED.

Chris Bowick, senior vice president of engineering and CTO at Cox Inc., said the idea is to develop a common reference architecture for an all-digital, multiservice network running on a hybrid fiber/coax cable plant, just as CableLabs did with DOCSIS, initially for data services.

Marwan Fawaz, CTO and senior vice president of engineering and technology at Adelphia Communications, said his company has not been participating in the development up to now, but likely will get involved going forward.

"I think NGNA has some great ideas for us to migrate in an elegant way from analog to a digital standard," Fawaz said. "So we're glad it's happening. We would have preferred to be there in the beginning, but I'm confident at least at some point we will be more involved in the next six months."

But one thing NGNA is not aiming to do is solve a supposed bandwidth drought among cable operators, Bowick said. Contrary to a recent report, cable operators have tools ranging from 256 QAM modulation to statistical multiplexing to supply more than adequate bandwidth for the range of voice, video and data services they are now fielding.

Bowick noted that in the Cox network, only about 18 percent of its video QAMs are operating at the higher-capacity 256 QAM level, and it also can recoup significant bandwidth by converting bandwidth-absorbing analog channels to digital.

"The tools to optimize bandwidth are there; we've just got to get on with it," he said. "It's a matter of timing, and when we want to start migrating the bandwidth, we have to [do] something that is much more efficient."

And the idea of maxing out on bandwidth wasn't entirely a bad thing.

"Just say we were out of bandwidth," he said. "It's good news, bad news. The bad news is you've run out of bandwidth, but the good news is you've put on a lot of revenue generating stuff."

The panel also discussed the preparations for a July 1 deadline requiring MSOs to stock and supply one-way CableCARDs to link to retail digital cable-ready devices.

As the National Cable & Telecommunications Association representative, William Check said he looked at that date as "a milestone rather than a deadline."

The NCTA vice president of science and technology noted that consumer products are already starting to show up in retail stores from manufacturers such as Panasonic, and as the holiday season approaches, "you will start to see more of these unidirectional devices out in the field."

Adelphia has had to do a fair amount of work to make sure its networks are ready to recognize the retail cable-ready devices, and that doesn't just include the provisioning.

PSIP is the program metadata scheme used by broadcasters to supply guide information such as title and episode description that differs from the scheme cablers use. That has caused some technical snarls, given retail television sets carrying CableCARD interfaces will still need to receive PSIP signals.

"I think we also have a responsibility to support PSIP... which also comes up July 1. And we are finding that to be hard," Fawaz said.

The MSO has also been training its customer service representatives to handle calls from subscribers requesting CableCARDs and information. But he noted there was an equal task ahead in educating consumers as to what one-way CableCARD devices will deliver - and most importantly, the two-way services and interactive programming guides it will not support.

Wayne Davis, newly-named CTO at Charter Communications, agreed, adding "then you have to know how to respond to the customer who comes back and says, 'I can't get my guide, and I can't get my video-on-demand menu'."

Cox, too, has made the necessary network upgrades and has been training its CSRs "so they understand what is about to hit them."

Bowick noted that Cox has already had one incident where a customer requested a CableCARD, installed it, found out he couldn't receive the IPG or VOD service and then switched back to a traditional digital cable box.

"We do have one customer out there, and my understand is as of yesterday, we have one more request," he added.

The discussion also ventured beyond just the cable plant. During the Q&A, an audience member asked the panel if they were considering any move toward incorporating cellular phone services within their offerings.

Fawaz noted there has been talk about integrating a mobile play, particularly in creating a handoff scheme allowing cell phones to switch from a cellular tower connection to a DOCSIS connection if the user were making the call while at home. Kenneth Wright, CTO of C-COR, followed up on that, noting that from the technology side, C-COR is in talks to look at developing a roaming technology to do just that, automatically handing traffic from a cellular tower to a home network.

Bowick, too, noted the cable industry does have to start thinking about a cellular tie-in. He noted Cox already has a team looking at the potential service strategies, ranging from becoming a reseller with a cellular service provider to developing its own mobile phone service.

"The question is a good one because fundamentally, you've got to believe mobile is going to become very important to us," he said. "We do need to make our service more mobile and more ubiquitous."

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