CableLabs President and CEO Paul Liao is set to leave those posts by the end of this year, but there's still a lot on his plate over the next nine months.
Among other duties, Liao and his staff worked closely with Canoe Ventures prior to the latter's decision last week to drop its national interactive TV advertising platform, which relied on CableLabs' EBIF specification. Canoe Ventures launched its EBIF-based request for information (RFI) campaign in 2010, and it was available in more than 25 million EBIF-enabled households, with Comcast accounting for most of those homes, before Canoe pulled the plug last week.
Instead of a national advertising platform, Canoe Ventures, which is backed by the nation's six largest cable operators, decided to focus on dynamic ad insertion (DAI) in VOD and TV Everywhere services with its remaining employees in Denver.
Canoe worked with CableLabs on a revamped EBIF specification, and it also lent a hand on the development of CableLabs' Stewardship and Fulfillment Interface (SaFI) standards for advanced advertising, which were designed to work in tandem with the SCTE 130 standards.
Before taking over the top executive spots at CableLabs in 2009, Liao was Panasonic North America's chief technology officer and vice president.
In a Q&A with CED, Liao spoke about Canoe Ventures' attempt at a national iTV platform, as well as the major initiatives that CableLabs is working on this year.
CED: What role did Canoe Ventures play in the development of CableLabs' EBIF and SaFI specs?
Liao: Canoe's real job was to sort of commercialize this, and especially to create a national platform. They had a mixture of both ad sales from the national standpoint, whereas the MSOs typically work in their own region, naturally, as well as tackling the deployment issues that occur to get a national platform ready.
CableLabs' job really was the specs and working with the suppliers to make sure the specs were correct and that the suppliers' software and products interoperated, and to develop the ongoing expansion of those specs into things like measurement and tools to ensure that things are working right and so on.
Whereas Canoe really focused on the practicality of getting it deployed. For example, the decision was made early on to focus on templates. By using a template, you could minimize any interoperability or other kinds of issues because if all of the applications followed a template, it would simplify the testing and the development. The one that they released was the RFI template.
Canoe took those EBIF and SaFI specs and really implemented them so that advertisers could directly use them.
In fact, [the specifications] are just as important as ever. On the local basis, that's a booming business for the operators more and more now. They need to be continued and to be expanded. CableLabs is aggressively moving that stuff so it also involves going into second screens and things like that. Last year, we did things like putting them into VOD systems and DVR so it would operate in DVR mode.
There's a continuous extension of those specs. Beyond this, we're looking into how do we really make television into a personalized, customized product so that we can extend the real advantages of digital cable, which is that it can be targeted and measurable.
CED: Canoe Ventures still has a presence in Denver. Will it continue to work with CableLabs? (Canoe was among the participants that took part in an Enhanced TV interop at CableLabs last month.)
Liao: I expect that will continue, and if anything, it will probably intensify because they are getting much more focused, and that's good, I think.
CED: What were the challenges that Canoe Ventures faced with building and deploying its national iTV platform?
Liao: I think the challenge for them on a national scale is that the cable system is made up of quite disparate companies with different technologies and so on. VOD systems are different across the industry, as an example. Getting a national footprint was a challenge that was perhaps underestimated at the beginning.
Liao: That's exactly right. I think the fact that Canoe is really focusing on these types of things will really accelerate things.
CED: Interactive TV has had a lot of starts and stops over the years with the cable industry, but now it's poised for takeoff with EBIF?
Liao: The beauty of EBIF is that you can use it for things that are not advertising. All of the stuff that Comcast and other companies have done with second screens is all based on EBIF. That technology, which was developed for interactive TV, it's beginning to be pretty much commonplace now. I think it's an exciting time, and now the extension of that to second screens really broadens the whole scope.
CED: So what are the big-ticket items on CableLabs' plate this year?
Liao: CableLabs does a lot of different things, but there are a couple of really key initiatives. One of the initiatives is to really accelerate the ability of the cable industry to provide commercial services. The DOCSIS Provisioning of EPON (DPoE) specification is really a major thing. We just announced that we're launching a qualification program so that equipment vendors can get their equipment qualified, and that will accelerate that whole deployment. It's really remarkable to me what a tremendous opportunity that is for the operators.
Another important initiative for CableLabs is looking at reducing the energy consumption of set-top boxes. With the importance of lowering the carbon footprint, I think this is an important thing. We've launched an initiative to do that, which started late last year.
Another very, very important thing that I don't think gets enough attention is the IPv6 transition. It's something that isn't a problem yet, but unless we accelerate this, it could become a problem as the addresses are used up. The cable industry has been very good about conserving its addresses and having a plan to address this, but it's not clear that the rest of the ecosystem is as ready.
As an example, very few of the smart TVs are IPv6-ready. What this means is that if you get a smart TV that is IPv4 and you want to access some services like a streaming video service, if we run out of addresses, which could happen, and we're forced to put in these carrier-grade NATs (Network Address Translation Protocol), then you get NATs on top of NATs because every home has a router with an NAT on it.
Then the communications that are required to make the streaming video work well, along with other things like peer-to-peer, have difficulties. The presumption is that you're forced to deploy these carrier-grade NATs, but that's not necessarily a given. If we could get enough momentum and limit the deployment of IPv4 devices, then we can selectively deploy those iPv4 addresses to hopefully a small number of devices, but we really need the whole ecosystem to shift to IPv6 as quickly as possible. I think this is really an issue of us getting on the bully pulpit and getting the whole ecosystem to move.
Then there's the TV Everywhere online authentication and all of that, and I think that's going to become more and more important because consumers really want to have their services everywhere.
Going beyond that, it's really getting the traditional cable services to the subscriber using Web-based technologies. That's what Comcast is doing with their [X1, formerly known as Xcalibur] trial in Augusta, where they deliver the user experience using Web technologies, but the video is still delivered by standard MPEG delivery. The guide, recommendation engines and stuff like that are delivered by IP.
So now you see this path where eventually you get to all-IP delivery, but as we move in that direction, you can begin to serve IP-based devices, iPads, PCs, smartphones and smart TVs. For the first time, the cable industry can free itself from the limitations of the traditional set-top box. I think that is a really exciting opportunity for the industry. It's also a big challenge. … There's nothing more efficient than MPEG over QAM for distribution. The cost of delivering all of the billions of bits that you have to deliver over IP through broadband networks is going to be a challenge.
Cost-reducing DOCSIS and broadband in general is a very, very important thing, so the CCAP stuff needs to be successful and perhaps go beyond that to the next generation of broadband technologies.
CED: So we're not quite out of the gate yet with CCAP, but the cable industry is looking at what's next.
Liao: You have to start thinking about that because the rate at which broadband usage is going up is astounding. It's just really important to do that. I think CableLabs can play a key role in terms of its interoperability events. In 2011, we had over 50 different kinds of products tested at CableLabs, and there were 18 different interops.
Nearly 30 companies leased space at CableLabs so they could work directly with CableLabs' staff to accelerate their own development efforts. I think CableLabs can play a very important role in helping the whole industry move forward. Things like getting the cost down on broadband are extremely important.
And, of course, the wireless stuff is a huge opportunity. Almost every cable company is thinking about their Wi-Fi strategy, and the recent agreements between the cable companies with Verizon Wireless is going to open up new opportunities to increase the enjoyment of their subscribers.
CED: Has anything changed with your plans to leave CableLabs in December?
Liao: Nope. I'm still planning to. My wife says I have to do this. You know how it is.