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Marked by enthusiasm about VoIP, DVRs and (gasp!) interactive TV, the 2004
National Show might be remembered as the moment cable got its groove back

New Orleans, La.–After a three-year period of sluggishness highlighted by smaller crowds, layoffs and general gloom and doom, trends gleaned here at the 2004 National Show indicated that the industry–particularly the vendor community–is on the comeback trail.

Despite the influx of energy, this year's show did not exactly blow the numbers from last year's confab out of the water, but there were more people on hand this year than in 2003. NCTA officials put this year's attendance at 17,100, bettering last year's figure by 2 percent (16,700 attendees). But things were much better on the floor, which, at 167,700 square feet, was 22 percent larger than last year.

CTOs ponder the all-digital future, VoIP

Cable's top technical minds agreed that the industry had indeed brought home an array of new services through their broadband pipes, and that list would widen in years to come.

Opening Session
Opening session moderator & Fox
News Host Stuart Varney (far left) is
flanked by Charter Communications
Chairman Paul Allen, Time Warner Inc.
Chairman and CEO Richard Parsons,
and Comcast Corp. President
and CEO Brian Roberts.
The CTO session (titled, "When the Bits Go Marching In") focused not only on the prospects for an all-digital cable future, but also the key concerns for present-day rollouts of video-on-demand, HDTV and IP telephony.

It began with a discussion of the future–specifically, the much ballyhooed migration to an all-digital cable platform.

While Comcast CTO Dave Fellows told the crowd that cable had to move down the all-digital road, Cox Communications Inc. CTO Chris Bowick noted it would come only after a large migration effort. He also wondered whether the term "all-digital" could be confused with "only-digital."

Time Warner Cable CTO Mike LaJoie agreed, noting that in three to five years there still would be analog TV sets and set-top boxes in cable subscribers' homes. Evolving into a digital-only world would depend on several key factors outside the cable operator's control.

"The proliferation of devices from the CE industry is a key factor–when do they start selling all-digital devices?," he asked. Broadcasters also need to start broadcasting in digital, "so you have to see those two things happen first."

For Fellows, all-digital meant that every Comcast service is offered digitally, but he, too, noted it didn't preclude parallel analog services continuing for some time.

Show-goers also got their first glimpse of how much it might cost the nation's largest MSO to make the all-digital shift. In the waning moments of the confab, Comcast co-CFO John Alchin reportedly told the crowd that his company could spend between $1.5 billion to $2 billion on the conversion over the next five years.

SCTE President and CEO John Clark (far left) led a technical
panel comprised of Tony Werner of Liberty Media, Mike LaJoie of
Time Warner Cable, Yvette Gordon-Kanouff of SeaChange International,
David Fellows of Comcast, and Chris Bowick of Cox Communications.

"I don't want to make light of this because $1.5 billion to $2 billion is not chump change, but it really is compared with a $40 billion investment," he said, referring to the amount Comcast has spent on its networks since 1996.

Another area that is gaining more buzz these days is IP telephony, led in large part by Time Warner Cable's aggressive rollout. So far, VoIP service is up and running in 10 or 12 markets, and "the product is getting a great reception," LaJoie said.

A year ago, a panelist at the National Show said VoIP wasn't ready for prime time, "and we have done a wonderful job whipping it into shape," Bowick noted. "Do I think it's the future of telephone?" After pausing, he answered his own question, saying, "I would imagine a time in the near future when I have ordered my last circuit switch."

But LaJoie rebutted, noting that last year Time Warner was just rolling out its first VoIP service in Portland, Maine, "and I disagree–it was ready, and it does cook."

Grooming the multi-room DVR

Home TV Mirror
The Broadband Home exhibit
demonstrated how consumers
could bone up on current events
while brushing their teeth.
The 2004 National Show was a big one for coax-driven multi-room DVR technology, with heavy hitters Motorola Broadband and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. both showing off new products to ship video around the home.

S-A's new Explorer 8300 multi-room DVR uses existing coax cabling in the home to knit together a primary TV with as many as three additional sets. A version that can field HD to a main TV set and stream standard-definition signals to secondary sets is already deployed in a trial in an unspecified Time Warner Cable market, while a version capable of sending HD streams to secondary HD-enabled sets is pegged for release this fall.

At maximum usage, both versions can allow subscribers to view recorded content on the primary set, record two incoming TV channels and serve streams to the three auxiliary TV sets. The boxes can be built with hard drives ranging from 80 Gigabytes to 300 GB.

To ship the content around, S-A has built a 256 Quadrature Amplitude Modulator (QAM) into the Explorer 8300 silicon. That essentially creates 38 Mbps of downstream channel capacity, allowing the box to fire off video streams to the auxiliary set-tops using the in-home coax wiring. The signals themselves are upconverted to a range above 870 MHz, beyond the frequencies used by cable operators to deliver video channels.

"Essentially, what we've done is put a headend into the set-top," said Michael Harney, corporate senior vice president and president of subscriber networks.

Motorola, meanwhile, took the wraps off the DCT6400, a new digital set-top family that houses both HD and dual-tuner DVR capabilities. On the hardware front, the DCT6400 series contains a DOCSIS-based cable modem, a smart-card reader, and Ethernet and USB interfaces. All models in the family hook up digitally to consumer audio and video devices via 1394-DTV and DVI interfaces.

Motorola expects to launch the DCT6400 this summer, but has not disclosed pricing. The box already supports Microsoft TV's Foundation Edition 1.7, which includes fourth-generation DVR software. Among new features, 1.7 enables viewers to record a program in its entirety even if they decide to do so up to 90 minutes after the show started.

But multi-room DVR wasn't just the domain of the big players–it also attracted at least one startup to the game. Vigoto Inc. came to the show with a multi-room DVR scheme that shuttled analog video signals over coax with no need for secondary set-top boxes.

Instead, keychain-sized VigoLink modules–small infrared receivers with a coax jack–are hooked into the coax connection for each television, allowing the user to change channels and select content from a main hard drive using any of the television set remote controls. Able to control a maximum of four sets, the networked DVR system sends analog signals in the low 1 MHz range.

"The huge news here is a set-top box is not needed in every room, and set-top box functions can be done from any room in the home," said Gil Litwinsky, Vigoto's vice president of marketing.

For DVR function, the design could allow up to 16 channels to be simultaneously recorded, "however, we realize the price structure right now associated with having 16 tuners makes it less than feasible," he added, noting that Vigoto has submitted the box for PacketCable and OpenCable testing at CableLabs.

The company isn't releasing a price on the product, but Litwinsky said the main box would be comparable in cost to other DVR competitors, and the VigoLink module price "is nominal."

But the product won't necessarily be an easy sell in a market which now includes several coax-fed multiroom DVR products. As yet, Vigoto has not landed either an MSO trial or a deal, instead using the show as its coming out event.

Pace Micro Elec-tronics' Americas division came to the show with a new U.S. market picture.

Pace Americas President Michael Pulli–who recently took over from Neal Gaydon after he was promoted to executive director of worldwide sales for the London-based electronics company–says the Americas unit is retooling its U.S. market strategy and its box lineup.

That includes moving all of the products to a common hardware platform. By using the common hardware elements in its boxes, Pace can lower production costs and concentrate software, which is becoming the real box driver, Pulli says.

"In theory, we are really software guys because the hardware becomes so commoditized. It is all driven by the software," he noted.

That is one reason Pulli has gathered a handful of Pace engineers to start widening the box applications portfolio. Pace Americas already has partnership deals with outfits including Canadian gaming provider Bluestreak to provide additional box software, and Pulli said he wants the unit to expand that capability.

Pace is also shifting its strategy to make its box designs modular, allowing operators to tailor items like disk storage size, processing power and tuners to fit their video service deployments. In doing so, Pulli hopes to raise Pace's visibility among cablers.

Pace also showed off an early design for its long-awaited HD DVR, now expected to be available in the first or second quarter of 2005. The two-tuner Pace 755 will debut significantly later than set-top leaders Motorola and S-A. But that has at least one advantage–the delay will mean that the new Gemstar TV-Guide International Inc. programming guide expected to debut this summer can be integrated with Pace boxes based on the Motorola CA, Pulli said.

Plans are also on the board for a multiroom DVR version, largely accomplished through software additions to the DVR box. There are no details on the design yet, but Pulli noted "our multi-room will be software driven, and we want to be standards based, not proprietary."

Not all set-top news was tied to new product. At the show, news surfaced that Pioneer Electronics had decided to cease making Voyager digital set-tops for direct distribution to cable operators and instead focus its attention on "Plug & Play" digital TVs and the company's portfolio of interactive program guide projects. A company spokesman estimated that the phase out should be complete in the next 12 to 18 months.

The return of iTV?

As expected, interactive television took on a more prominent profile at this year's show, as operators noodle strategies and tactics to combat a Rupert Murdoch-led DirecTV.

What wasn't as apparent coming into the show was which iTV-related announcements would generate the most buzz. By far, that distinction went to activities surrounding a so-called "on ramp" to OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform), a CableLabs-specified middleware for OpenCable "hosts" such as digital set-tops and televisions.

More Detailed Coverage
As it's being drawn up, an OnRamp version of OCAP would be capable of running on legacy set-tops such as Motorola's DCT2000, giving operators a migration plan for beefier boxes and televisions that can handle the full OCAP stack. Though MSOs such as Cox Communications are leading the effort, the vendors are already filling in the blanks with OnRamp product plans.

Liberate Technologies was back in the swing with an OCAP OnRamp product dubbed TV Navigator 5. Liberate also cut a deal under which ICTV Inc. will port its existing thin-client set-top module to a Java client application that operates in the TV Navigator client. We'll call it "OCAP at the Headend" for now.

MetaTV, meanwhile, jumped in with a digital application system integrated with Liberate's OCAP OnRamp platform.

To fuel the OnRamp effort, several MSOs and vendors have come together to form the Java Community Process (JCP) Expert Group, which will develop a new Java-based OCAP OnRamp API standard. Already involved in defining the spec (JSR 242) are CableLabs, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, GoldPocket, Liberate, Motorola, Philips, Sun Microsystems, Time Warner Cable and Videom Systems.

"OnRamp is a subset of OCAP and applications written to OnRamp will be forward-compatible with our OCAP-enabled devices," said Cox CTO and Senior Vice President of Engineering Chris Bowick.

But not all of the OCAP activity was directed at OnRamp products. Sprint Corp., for example, showed off an OCAP-based unified messaging application running on an S-A Explorer set-top. In a more secretive location, Panasonic demonstrated a set-top-free digital television running OCAP applications (including an interactive program guide spawned from Time Warner's MystroTV project) on a two-way CableCARD–this even before a two-way version of Plug & Play is set in stone.

 

Now that's a fast modem!

While cable and DSL try to one-up each other on speed, ARRIS demonstrated an interesting concept that could leave DSL operators sniveling in a corner, crying for their mommies.

ARRIS' "FlexPath" cable modem fuses up to four DOCSIS signals onto one device, giving the modem the theoretical ability to download data at a blistering 160 Mbps when all four are tied together alongside a Cadant C4 CMTS outfitted with some special software.

But don't ask where you can pick one up just yet. Company officials acknowledged that the modem they showed off at the booth was merely a proof-of-concept prototype.

Plus, the operator would have to free up all those channels. But we can dream a little dream, can't we? –JB

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