New York—The annual CableLabs media briefing is typically a fount of news and fresh initiatives that will drive the industry forward for the rest of the year and into the foreseeable future. In 2005, the event did not disappoint, as CableLabs presented several new projects—including PacketCable 2.0 and downloadable security—and cast more light on DOCSIS 3.0, a key subject of last year's briefing.

Spotlighting downloadable security

A panel of key cable executives shed more light on the industry's plans for downloadable conditional access (CA) systems for digital set-tops and televisions. If all goes as planned, a CA system largely based in software will someday handle the same security functions of the CableCARD, a key cog in the current OpenCable platform and Plug & Play agreement. In fact, such a system could replace the CableCARD altogether as the industry's "removable" CA platform of choice.

Figure 1: Although Rogers is starting off with a “roam-to-home” trial with
friendlies, the company also envisions a much larger, converged network
that supports 3G, WiMAX and WiFi on a common IMS backbone.

Some of this work stems from a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to maintain a ban on cable set-tops with integrated security, but extend the deadline 12 months to July 2007. Cable is using this time to develop a downloadable security system, and to prove to the FCC that such a system is viable. The cable industry must file a feasibility report with the FCC by Dec. 1.

The cable industry maintains that a software CA, plus an inexpensive security processor in the set-top or TV, is the most secure and efficient way to go. And that includes the whole food chain—from cable operators and consumer electronics companies to the consumers themselves.

"No matter your constituency...downloadable security is better than the solution we have had in the past," said Mark Coblitz, Comcast Corp.'s senior vice president of strategy planning.

The CableCARD, he added, is much more complex to install and manage versus a software-based system because the card itself is a physical device. With software, "there are no...inventory control issues," Coblitz added. Plus, "it's more secure than the system we have today."

The downloadable CA CableLabs is noodling will embed five different core encryption engines, according to Mike Hayashi, Time Warner Cable's SVP of advanced engineering and subscriber technology.

The first three comply with existing encryption systems from Motorola Inc. (Mediacipher), Scientific-Atlanta (PowerKEY), and CSA (Common Scrambling Algorithm, for DVB-based cable systems). The other two are Triple DES and AES (Advanced Encryption System).

PacketCable 2.0 targets mobile voice, more SIP support

CableLabs is also cooking up a new version of PacketCable that will incorporate support for mobile voice services and place more attention on SIP-enabled devices such as videophones.

According to CableLabs Vice President of Advanced Network Systems Ed Miller, the forthcoming PacketCable 2.0 specification will build on the voice-centric PacketCable 1.0 and PacketCable 1.5 architectures.

It marks a second coming of sorts for PacketCable 2.0. At a media briefing held in 2002, CableLabs also announced plans for a spec called PacketCable 2.0, which later morphed to become PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM), a platform that injects QoS into a wide range of IP-based applications, including voice and video.

Miller noted that the 2.0 spec is in its "beginning stages," but expectations are that it could be ready by early 2006.

The spec will support several modules. The first will handle enhanced voice and video telephony services (TV-based caller ID, and voice messaging), and new SIP-based clients, including those based in software.

The new platform will also give special attention to mobile voice services supported by dual-mode WiFi/cellular handsets.

One MSO that's already taking convergence to the test is Rogers Communications of Canada, which is in the unique position of owning cable and cellular service platforms.

In a "roam-to-home" trial with friendlies, Rogers is testing handsets that can identify a home's WiFi or Bluetooth network, and backhaul traffic on the cable network to the cellular switch. Such a set-up is important in residential areas where cellular signals historically are weakest, said Michael Lee, Rogers Cable's vice president of strategy and development.

Lee estimated that Rogers is still 12 to 18 months away from a commercially-deployable platform that marries wireline and wireless voice services. Rogers is also exploring how WiMAX technology might fit into this convergence scenario, as well.

Although PacketCable 2.0 and seamless mobility is a look forward, there's plenty going on today with the 1.x architecture. Time Warner Cable, which has made VoIP available across the majority of its footprint, is signing up 15,000 VoIP subs per week, with 70 percent taking a "triple play" of voice, data and video services, said Sam Howe, the operator's SVP of marketing, voice. He added that the MSO hopes to be close to 90 percent to 95 percent VoIP-enabled by year-end.

Figure 2: Traffic trends: As this traffic snapshot indicates,
peer-to-peer applications are eating up the most bandwidth.
“We’d like to see [traffic] evenly distributed...but that's
not reality,” Adelphia’s Marwan Fawaz says.

More on DOCSIS 3.0

Cable engineering executives also discussed DOCSIS 3.0, an emerging CableLabs spec that will use "channel bonding" techniques to boost speeds to 100 Mbps and higher. It also supports IPv6, which will give MSOs the ability to better manage their IP address pools and gain more sophisticated provisioning tools.

DOCSIS 3.0 is in the final review period, and a final spec could be ready by early 2006, according to CableLabs Chief Technology Officer Ralph Brown.

Although DOCSIS 3.0 is cable's answer to fiber-fed data services, current DOCSIS technology is more than enough to fend off DSL performance, according to Marwan Fawaz, chief technology officer and SVP of engineering and technology for Adelphia Communications.

"DSL can't match our speeds," he said, noting that faster ADSL2+ technology is still based on customer distance from the central office. "DOCSIS can provide the same speeds throughout any service area," Fawaz added.

To cement that point, Fawaz announced that Adelphia is preparing to launch a pair of "Extreme" cable modem service tiers. Set for a third quarter debut, those "Extreme" tiers will cap speeds at 15 Mbps/2 Mbps and a 10 Mbps/1 Mbps service.

Fawaz did not specify which cities would be the first to receive Extreme. "We'll target certain markets for competitive reasons," he said.

Earlier this year, Adelphia raised speeds in all its markets. Its "Premier" tier was raised to 6 Mbps/768 kbps from 4 Mbps/512 kbps; the flagship product was increased to 4 Mbps/384 kbps from 3 Mbps/256 kbps; and "Basic" was upgraded to 256 kbps symmetrical from 128 kbps symmetrical.

Because it was later than many other MSOs with upgrades, Adelphia has standardized on DOCSIS 2.0, complimented by 256 QAM in the downstream, and 64 QAM in the upstream. Fawaz said the capital cost of doubling bandwidth (on just one 6 MHz channel) runs between $4 to $5 per home serviced.