The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' (SCTE) Cable-Tec Expo in Orlando, Fla. was a lot like the weather there–aside from the threat of a few technical thunderstorms looming for the industry, attendees came away with a mostly sunny forecast.
The show floor looked bigger and more active than last year's affair as exhibitors apparently took the 2004 show slogan to heart and maximized their exposure. Although attendance was basically flat at 10,300 (compared to 10,600 in 2003), the number of exhibitors jumped 5.3 percent (375 versus 356 last year), and the Expo welcomed 71 first-timers.
Most vendors we contacted said they were seeing some strong interest and driving business on the show floor. In fact, at least one Expo newcomer went home with fewer demo units than it came with. Next-gen encoder startup EGT Inc. arrived with 14 encoding units to power its demonstrations, but ended the show with just 12– the other two were sold right off the rack.Bandwidth issues still buzzing
The buzz around the all-digital future for cable services continued to be loud, particularly focusing on the details of the Next Generation Network Architecture (NGNA) scheme that Cox Communications, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable have been quietly assembling.
The idea is to develop some kind of common reference architecture for an all-digital, multi-service network running on an HFC plant, just as CableLabs initially did with DOCSIS for high-speed data services (please see the May 2004 issue of CED for a more detailed look at NGNA).
Chris Bowick, Cox's senior vice president of engineering and chief technology officer, said in a CTO roundtable discussion at the show that NGNA is still a work in progress. He said the MSOs were working with CableLabs to define a reference architecture "and it's not concrete by any stretch of the imagination. That will evolve and hopefully that will leverage what we have put in place today."
But one thing NGNA is not aiming to do is solve a supposed bandwidth drought among cable operators, Bowick said. Contrary to some reports, 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 [have] something that is much more efficient."
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…we will be more involved in the next six months."
Every now and then new ideas came to light, including talk of bringing cellular wireless technology within cable's reach. During the CTO panel session, Fawaz of Adelphia 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 (Cox), William Check (NCTA), Wayne Davis (Charter), Leslie Ellis
(moderator), Marwan Fawaz (Adelphia), and Ken Wright (C-COR).
Tweaks are tops in '04
As in the past couple of years, the technology trends ran more toward efficiency tweaks rather than major innovations, with bandwidth management software, optical systems and video stream processors in abundance.
But the show also uncovered plenty of dicey technical issues, as technical minds grappled with things ranging from the all-digital conversion to bandwidth issues to support burgeoning video-on-demand and high-definition television deployments.
Although largely talk so far, there was evidence on the show floor that the all-digital concept is moving toward reality.
Case-in-point was SeaChange International Inc.'s new upgrade to its System Resource Management product. Up to now, the SRM has been offering cablers a way to assign QAMs to VOD streams. But a new upgrade will now manage all types of video content, allowing operators to funnel together services including movies on-demand and gaming, and dynamically adjust the bandwidth assigned to each service based on user demand.
"In most systems the services are managed separately, so if you have high demand for one, you can't adjust that," according to James Kelso, vice president and general manager of broadband systems, SeaChange International.
In a best-case scenario, the services are all running on the same QAM modulation level, but Kelso noted services running at variable QAM rates can be combined. In the latter case, the load balancing simply gets trickier, because providers would have to ensure the maximum number of modulators for each service–particularly those running at a lower QAM modulation–to distribute the traffic load across the QAMs.
by (L-R) Bob Miron (Advance/Newhouse), Carl Vogel (Charter),
Brian McFadden (Nortel), and Jim Chiddix (OpenTV).
For now, the system only meshes video services, but SeaChange is working on an upgrade that would include packet services such as Internet and voice. But when the data element will be included has not been determined.
"This is the low-hanging fruit here–to take all of the video," he said, pointing to the demonstration running at the SeaChange booth. "Data has a lot of complexities, and to wander in there unknowing wouldn't be smart for us."
SeaChange also unveiled a new edition of its management software that promises to tie the knot between cable's hot-button products–HDTV and video-on-demand.
The Recording System 2.0 software will allow cable operators to automatically record and store multiple HD television broadcasts along with analog and standard-format digital content on VOD servers. It can automatically record broadcasts in real-time, combine them with CableLabs-compliant VOD metadata information such as program synopsis and pricing and then deliver it to multiple VOD servers.
SeaChange's propagation software also directs stream capture to available servers, so the entire array of servers can be used to log in content. Using SeaChange's distribution architecture, those capture streams can then be delivered at any point in the network from any of the servers.
Expanding VOD vendor options was another trend that weaved its way into the Expo tapestry. Charter picked Expo to announce that it is launching VOD in Malibu, Calif. using a platform made up of nCUBE Corp.'s back office and application software and servers from Kasenna Inc. The deployment established Kasenna as Charter's third source for video servers. Charter also uses servers from nCUBE and Concurrent Computer Corp. in other VOD markets.
Expo wasn't just a show for the established cable vendors, with plenty of newer players setting up exhibits hoping to attract MSO attention. Those included Tandberg Television, a Norwegian video systems provider that up to now has targeted primarily satellite and broadcast customers. Now it is making a concerted effort to enter the cable arena, lining up against entrenched players Harmonic Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta, among others, according to Marketing Manager Lisa Hobbs.
Although known more for its IP video gear, Tandberg offers encoders that process standard MPEG-2 streams. Its E5720 standard definition encoder offers variable outputs, so it can take in MPEG-2 content and export it in either that format or in Internet Protocol.
Tandberg has also sold a good number of its HD encoders to U.S. broadcasters and providers of backhaul video transport. It also offers a multichannel 8-VSB encoder to take in over-the air digital TV signals and convert them for cable delivery, funneling a maximum of 12 channels in a single chassis.
"The advantage we have over others in the market is if you have to bring in multiple channels over the air, you can do it with one three-rack-unit chassis," Hobbs said.
Tandberg also looked to strengthen its European product lines during the show, inking a distribution deal with N2 Broadband Inc. to market N2's OpenStream on-demand digital content delivery platform and other items in its product line to European, Middle Eastern and African MSOs. That adds a valuable VOD offering to its lineup, and in turn, N2 gained a new distribution avenue overseas.
There also was no shortage of optical products lighting up the show floor. Optical Ethernet specialist Fujitsu came to the show with a new scaled-down version of its Flashwave 7500 optical transport chassis, offering cable operators a lower-cost road to dense wave division multiplexing transport. That is similar to "pizza box" offerings elsewhere in transport systems, but because all of the DWDM interface cards are common with the Flashwave 7500, "unlike a pizza box, you can start with this and go to the full system later," said Bob Laurent, Fujitsu's media relations manager. "This is really a low-cost option to getting into optical Ethernet."
It also will offer larger cable operators a means to extend optical DWDM transport to outlying areas, he added.
Fujitsu also was showing off a product that incorporates Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) on an optical Ethernet link. MPLS, used to shuttle around multiple types of content at varying service delivery levels on major optical backbones, could see use in optical cable systems as operators in the future mix voice, video and data traffic using the same delivery platform.
Fujitsu's MPLS offering is based on a chassis developed by optical Ethernet gear maker Atrica Inc. The Atrica Service Platform for Ethernet Networks (ASPEN) combines Layer 2 Ethernet transport with a Layer 3 MPLS control plane, giving operators the ability to offer committed information rate connections to services or individual subscribers. Able to provide comparable T-1 and OC-3 connections, the Atrica switch also can provide trace routing and managing capabilities to monitor data as it moves across the network.
"From the service provider perspective, that addresses a key pain point of delivering services faster," said Umesh Kukreja, director of product marketing at Atrica.
The chassis is available now and is in trials with a major, as yet unnamed U.S. cable operator. Internationally, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom are using the chassis to direct traffic.
Not to be outdone, Motorola Broadband came to the show with a new optical Ethernet transport product aimed at boosting capacity for bandwidth-hungry video- on-demand services in metro fiber optic networks.
The scalable Multiservice Wavelength Transport Ethernet Aggregation 200 can offer between 10 Gigabits per second and 20 Gbps throughput over optical Ethernet links, used typically in distribution networks to shuttle VOD streams from the regional archives to outlying hubs. But the product can be used to support any data services requiring generous throughput.
"In two rack units you have the ability to support 20 Gbps. So what that allows you to do is to take up to 20 Gigabits of feed into this platform, and those feeds could be either video-on-demand transport or it could be just optical Ethernet delivered out to a business customer, if you will," said Jeff Walker, senior director of marketing for Motorola's network infrastructure solutions business.
Scientific-Atlanta Inc., meanwhile, pushed its VOD capacity into the 10 Gbps range with the release of a new line card for its Prisma IP multi-service digital transport platform.
The new card also supports tunable transmit/receive optics to allow a new Automated Broadcast and Select architecture S-A has developed, allowing operators to put as many as 100 wavelengths on a single fiber without resorting to DWDM. That can help lower operating costs and allow more efficient configuration of optical networks on-demand.
The key element to allow that is the card's tunable receiver, being jointly developed by S-A and Iolon Inc. It is similar to radio frequency technology, making all of the channels available while giving the tuner the job of switching between them.
In addition, the 100-channel transmitter replaces the maximum 40 parts that were previously required to tune VOD streams, and it allows a single transmitter to act as a backup for all 100 wavelengths.
Unlike the 2004 National Show, vendors at this year's Expo–as with most before it–didn't place much focus on CPE. Still, that didn't stop Pace Micro Technology from showcasing some home-side gear, significantly a live demo of a digital set-top box with built-in DSG (DOCSIS Set-top Gateway) capabilities. Pace's DC515 box, based on a Conexant Systems chipset and Motorola Broadband's MediaCipher conditional access platform, tapped an integrated DOCSIS channel to carry out-of-band (OOB) set-top signals. Several operators are considering DSG-enabled set-tops to pipe data for interactive program data and other applications. Pace used the platform to do IP-based video streaming and send messages via a DSG data tunnel.Return to San Antonio
Although the calendar says it's 2004, it's never too early to start thinking about next year. SCTE officials confirmed that Expo will return to San Antonio in 2005. That confab is slated to run June 14-17.