Cox CTO Hart shares thoughts on Cable Show, big picture at MSO
Any cable operator executive that is willing to show up to a press room at 8:30 a.m. on the last day of a major show is destined for hero status in my book. The fact that Cox Communications executive vice president and chief technology officer Kevin Hart was willing to meet with the formerly ink-stained wretches that early at this week’s Cable Show was above and beyond the call of duty.
Hart, who came onboard as Cox’s CTO in April of last year  after stints at Clearwire and Level 3, covered a range of topics in the press room during a one-on-one interview.
CED: Cox Communications was part of the Wi-Fi roaming pact, which also included Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Cablevision and Bright House , that was announced at this week’s show. Where are you in terms of your Wi-Fi engineering efforts?
Hart: We’re just getting started on Wi-Fi. We’re still doing some of our vendor evaluations. We’re down to one or two providers on the core for Wi-Fi, and then we’ll probably fall in alignment with the access points with some of the other partners.
CED: You’re initially targeting areas in Connecticut and northern Virginia for Wi-Fi hotspots. Will those go live this year?
Hart: We’ll target a couple of cities and kind of fill in some space that’s not covered in our territory and take part in the consortium and kind of evaluate the business model and the customers’ experience.
This announcement allows us to make incremental investments in the core infrastructure, standardize, invest once and use multiple times across the various market threads. We’re definitely excited about that.
(Cox Communications spokesman Todd Smith said the cable operator will initially deploy access points in Connecticut and northern Virginia, and that after the customer experience has been evaluated, hotspots will probably launch on a wider basis next year.)
CED: Cox has been involved in helping shape the Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) specifications, but where are you in terms of deploying CCAP products?
Hart: We’re still keeping our eye on it, and we’re excited about the promise of the economies of scale, but the last time I checked with our internal folks, it’s maybe late 2013 or 2014 before we’re going to see anything in production.
CED: So are there any products or technologies at The Cable Show that stood out for you?
Hart: The one thing that stood out for me at the show is that some of the concepts that we’ve been kicking around as an industry are finally coming to fruition from a production and commercialization standpoint. Things like TV Everywhere apps, some of the new UIs, some of the embedded smart TVs with program capability and new Wi-Fi capabilities are finally in the market and driving customer satisfaction and revenue for the companies.
CED: We’ve heard that the content rights issues logjam will start to break up this year. Have you heard the same, and what are your plans for getting content to other devices after starting with the iPad last year?
Hart: We have a roadmap for Android and a couple of other tablets. We have quarterly releases for this year and next year, so for each quarter, we’ll be coming out with new functionalities, as well as new devices, and over time a continuous front end with HTML5 that we can scale across multiple platforms.
We’re also building out the internal infrastructure around CDN capability, scaling the network and making the investment in the infrastructure, because whether it’s this year or next year, some of the programming structure will become a little more flexible, and that will allow us to serve our customers in different ways.
CED: Last year’s decision to send live signals to an iPad marked one of Cox’s first steps toward the migration to IP services . Where are you now with IP?
Hart: We’re definitely building all of our future network architectures with IP in mind, whether it’s scaling or forward compatibility for future IP solutions. All of our gateways and set-top boxes, and even solutions for VOD, are contemplating IP because that’s obviously in the future. I worked for Level 3 over the years, and I’ve been focused on IP since the early ’90s, and I think now from a consumer standpoint, the devices, the infrastructures are taking advantage of the IP infrastructure, and we’re preparing for that.
IP has enabled our network, as well as our devices. We’re working on the next-generation gateway that can do both QAM and IP, and we have some of those in our labs so we can prepare for our customers to have the best of both worlds.
CED: When will you announce the hybrid gateway?
Hart: We’re like some other folks in that we’re waiting for some of the silicon to finalize, and the word on the street is that will happen over the next couple of weeks. Once that happens, we’ll be able to start trialing some of those in the lab environment.
CED: Cox Business has been almost synonymous for cable operator success with business services. Do you plan to do more in serving enterprise clients, or are there still a lot of opportunities with SMBs?
Hart: We have about 275,00 customers within Cox Business, and the majority of those probably have 100 and below employees. We’re definitely going to move upstream a bit, but there are still plenty of opportunities with small and medium businesses. We’re active with new product development. Probably half of our new product portfolio in terms of the resources against that is applied toward Cox Business solutions. We just rolled out IP Centrex in the last couple of weeks.
Obviously enabling the cloud for the application and back office components for small business customers is big for us. As you’ve probably heard, we’re targeting to go from $1 billion in business services revenues to $2 billion over the next four or five years. It’s a really high growth engine for our company and was recently recognized by J.D. Power for customer satisfaction. We feel like it’s one of our core strength areas and differentiators.
CED: We’ve heard a lot of talk at the show this week about extending the capabilities of DOCSIS. What’s next for DOCSIS?
Hart: I think myself and my team are definitely plugged in on CableLabs’ efforts for the next generation of DOCSIS, EPON, EPoC (EPON Protocol Over Coax) and any other current to next-generation technology, because when you start to think about something like video conferencing at every end point, not only downstream but also the upstream, bandwidth consumption goes up, so we’re going to need to continue to work on future evolutions, the protocols and technologies to enable the bandwidth growth. We’re in the 50 to 60 percent bandwidth growth year-over-year, and for some companies, the upstream will have more pressure than the downstream, particularly with the two-way applications being rolled out.
CED: How does Cox sit with its upstream bandwidth?
Hart: We have several years of runway, but it’s definitely in a future-state planning consideration. The rate of innovation has really picked up over the last couple of years, and I would expect that to continue as we open up our platform to the APIs and RDKs and embrace the ecosystem partners. My guess is that we’re going to be running even faster to keep up with the bandwidth growth we’ve had over the last couple of years. This will be a big focus for the industry.
CED: What are some of the other big-picture efforts at Cox that maybe we don’t hear about day to day?
Hart: I also have the IT team, as well as the network operations team, so I think a big focus at Cox is driving the integration between the customer experience, the back office, the interface to the network and the day-to-day operational support. It’s a pretty broad lifecycle, and not all the [cable operator] teams have structured their technical teams that way, but [Cox CEO] Pat Esser and some others at Cox deserve some credit because I can see the lines between IT, engineering and operational support kind of diminishing and becoming very integrated toward all the next-generation technologies.
I think this will give us a competitive advantage in terms of speed to market as we align the organization and product development into one lifecycle with the support. We’re already seeing some synergies and some benefits with simple things like communications and coordination between the various teams, having the right tools and processes in place, and relying on standards for our engineering teams. There’s a lot of pretty powerful transformation within Cox, all focused on driving new products and services for our customers.
We’re aligning our go-to-market strategy, marketing, product roadmaps, technology and operational support to get those key functions synchronized and get the proverbial flywheel spinning. We’re really starting to see some great traction within the company, just on the rate of innovation for our products and new business launches. The launches from a trial basis have picked up dramatically over the past 12 months.
(In order to improve on its efficiencies, Cox will start to move from nine systems to seven later this year by consolidating its Arizona and Las Vegas systems and combining its Louisiana and Florida/Georgia properties.)
We’re still going to provide great local customer service in all of those areas, but we’re focused on standards and speed-to-market capabilities so we become more competitive. It’s really very exciting.