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Time Warner, Comcast execs talk on tech, advanced cable services

Wed, 05/24/2006 - 8:08am
Brian Santo, CED

At the CableLabs Financial Analyst Conference in New York Tuesday, Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt and Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts were queried separately on several tech-related subjects including OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform), telephony, targeted advertising, wireless phone, the transition to all-digital broadcasting and a number of other services and features cable operators could provide.

Britt said Time Warner Cable's major thrust in 2006 and beyond is rolling out switched digital video, while Comcast is focusing on growing its telephony business this year, according to Roberts.

The subtext for nearly every question posed to the two executives was the perceived constraints on their spectrum and capacity. By extension, they were being asked if they can compete with the telcos.

Both Britt and Roberts patiently explained - several times each - that the existing HFC (hybrid fiber/coax) architecture is nearly infinitely flexible, that it can provide adequate bandwidth for the services cable operators are providing now, that operators have multiple options for managing their bandwidth to assure they have enough capacity to offer any additional service conceivable, and that MSOs can do it all without a major upgrade.

Both said consumer demand will direct what services they roll out and when. Roberts said the transition to all-digital broadcasting is an endpoint goal that will allow operators to reclaim spectrum on their own networks that can be devoted to other services. But he also explained that operators can and should make the transition gradually, as many consumers may not be so eager to make the transition.

Both Britt and Roberts were enthusiastic about OCAP, a middleware system that will allow any OCAP-compliant application to run on any OCAP set-top or digital television. Britt likened OCAP to Windows; Roberts called it "bedrock" - both suggesting the standard platform will provide a foundation for rolling out new applications.

Roberts explained that Comcast is large enough that deploying OCAP will be an advantage for his company even if no other company adopts it. He said Comcast will start deploying the technology within a year. He said the endpoint is a national footprint for OCAP, but that the deployment will be, by necessity, a gradual one.

Britt was also asked about the costs of implementing switched digital, and to comment on a cost estimate of $20 to $30 per subscriber. Britt offered an indicative but non-corresponding figure; he said TWC had rolled out switched digital, digital simulcast, and "Start Over" (which allows customers to restart shows already in progress) in Columbia, S.C., and that the cost for the three was about $10 million, or about $16 per home passed.

On net neutrality, both CEOs were generally in accord with Roberts' characterization of the proposal as a "solution in search of a problem."

On the possibility of major cable operators joining with Sprint Nextel to bid on wireless spectrum, both were tentative, saying that the documents they filed were the cost of exploring the issue. "This is all just to buy a paddle at Sotheby's," Roberts said.

Roberts said wireless was interesting, but today it is not critical to offer it. He said it is not clear how much customers would value it as an element in the bundle, nor is it clear how, technologically, it could be integrated with the other services in the bundle.

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