Via demos, sessions and new product announcements,
The Cable Show showered affection on tru2way

Some critics consider television a vast wasteland, but with the advent of tru2way and the sophisticated interactive applications tru2way is making possible – finally becoming available and on display at the recent Cable Show – TV might yet become what it always had the potential to be: something to really love.

The NCTA Cable Show in New Orleans highlighted several trends and technologies, including interactive advertising, business services, and PacketCable Multimedia, but it was tru2way that set the theme for the show the way ’70s cover bands set the beat on Bourbon Street.

CableLabs, NCTA and Vidiom Systems sponsored a day-and-a-half tru2way conference before the show officially started, and there were at least 20 vendors with announcements related to tru2way, including some that drew a bead on lighter-weight applications based on ETV and EBIF that are precursors to tru2way deployments.

Paul Liao
Paul Liao

At the preceding conference, Panasonic Corporation of North America Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Paul Liao said of tru2way, “It is a great technology. It’s the simplest way for us to test, evolve and develop applications.”

Liao said that customers want tru2way TVs because they don’t need set-top boxes and they’re easier to boot up than adding set-top boxes to existing TVs. Panasonic expects to have 42-inch and 50-inch tru2way TVs on the market by this fall while the company’s 150-inch plasma TV that was shown at CES in January is still one or two years out.

“It’s very exciting because this is the real thing,” Liao said of the tru2way TVs.

While tru2way allows cable operators to offer interactive services that telco and satellite video providers currently can’t match, Liao said there are a few pitfalls to be aware of.

The first is that the Federal Communications Commission has yet to designate tru2way as “interactive digital cable-ready.” Liao said that any new technology will have its ups and downs, but cable operators such as Time Warner Cable have already done work on Motorola and Scientific Atlanta headends.

Liao also said retailers have had a “horrible experience” to date with one-way DVRs that have CableCards and that the consumer electronics and cable industries need to do a better job of educating consumers on the two-way capabilities of tru2way.

tru2way on the floor
While tru2way has been around since its inception as the OpenCable Application Platform in 1997, the number of application demonstrations at this year’s show seemed to indicate that tru2way is nearing liftoff.

Zodiac Interactive won the NCTA’s Tru2way Developers’ Showcase Challenge, while also having its tru2way applications scattered throughout the show floor with ADB, Alticast, Motorola and Thomson.

Zodiac’s PowerUp for tru2way platform enabled both full-screen applications such as TVPhoto, as well as its “Zidget” applications such as local search, weather, traffic, sports scores and games on TVs around the show floor.

The itaas booth at the show featured a slew of tru2way demonstrations including Integra5’s TV and PC picture Caller ID, Cisco/thePlatform with Web content on the TV, the MPTV gateway featuring ringtones downloaded from the TV to the mobile phone, and the Tag Networks game demonstrations.

tru2way panel
Left to right: Cox Communications’ James Kelso, Comcast’s Sree Kotay, Sun Microsystems’
Bill Sheppard, Time Warner Cable’s Sherisse Hawkins and moderator Leslie Ellis discuss
tru2way during one of the panel sessions.

TWC, Comcast walk the tru2way
So now that meaningful tru2way applications are on the cusp of being ready, the next step is getting cable operators’ networks tuned up.

Time Warner Cable already has one foot through the tru2way doorway and into customers’ homes, while Comcast is gearing up to follow suit.

During the tru2way conference session, “House-bound: Tru2way Deployment Plans,” employees of the two biggest cable operators in the nation gave a rundown of where they are with tru2way.

Bill Helms, Time Warner Cable’s vice president, subscriber equipment, said his company started tackling the OpenCable Platform two years ago. Currently, Time Warner Cable has OCAP enabled in 40 percent of its footprint across 16 operating divisions in various regions with 900,000 subscribers and 1.1 million set-top boxes.

“Our primary application deployed on our network right now is the OCAP digital Navigator developed by Time Warner Cable, but we also have third-party application support as well,” Helms said. “We’re going to continue our OCAP roll-outs to the rest of our markets as fast as we can.

“We’ll continue to innovate. The two primary innovations that we’re most interested in right now are bringing in EBIF support and ETV as well bringing on home networking on the OCAP platform.”

As for the third-party applications that Time Warner Cable is working on, most of them revolve around customer care applications such as advanced advertising, voting and polling on TVs and other channel enhancements.

Time Warner Cable is also working on bound ETV/EBIF applications that can run on the large number of legacy set-top boxes with the goal of porting these applications to a full-tru2way environment once the technology matures.

Time Warner Cable rotated in some of the OCAP-enabled set-top boxes as part of its “natural refresh” of boxes, but Helms said the clamor for HD by subscribers helped Time Warner Cable get more of the OCAP boxes deployed.

With various moving parts, the OpenCable Platform has been a challenge for cable operators to implement ever since it was first hatched 10 years ago, but Time Warner Cable was one of the first cable operators to buckle down.

“It’s been a little bit of an impact on our divisions,” Helms said. “We did it in the middle of doing separable security, which added to the fun and games of it all and added to the complexity. We’ve learned a lot over the last nine to 12 months and continue to learn.”

While Comcast doesn’t have any OCAP services deployed to customers, it’s working diligently to get its network ready, according to Sree Kotay,

Comcast Cable’s senior vice president and chief software architect. Comcast is working on a three-pronged approach for interactivity that includes: EBIF and ETV applications that can run on legacy set-top boxes and can be ported into OCAP boxes down the road; OnRamp, which uses a subset of Java APIs that OCAP is based upon and was used to deploy Comcast’s TiVo service; and full OCAP deployments.

Kotay said around 60 percent of Comcast’s networks will be ETV-enabled by the end of the year, and it will have tru2way network capability in 98 percent of its network by the close of next year. Comcast expects 15 percent of its total devices to be two-way by the end of this year, while 50 percent will be Java-capable by the end of next year.

Comcast’s tru2way deployments will kick off with a new guide, called J25 Java, which is slated for release in the fourth quarter of this year.

Kotay and Helms both talked about using OCAP to tie in voice and data services with video. While each of them said it was on their companies’ respective roadmaps, they weren’t able to provide many details on when the tie-ins would take place, but Helms pointed out that caller ID on TVs is already one example of tying two bundled services together.

Helms said the OpenCable group is working on OpenCable Home Networking, which is an extension to the OpenCable Platform. While there are conditional rights issues to be resolved, Helms said tru2way adds in the ability to have a distribution technology in a hub device within the subscriber’s home networking system in order to provision applications such as multi-room DVR, photo sharing and video sharing to and from PCs and TVs.

(Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt said at a conference in New York in May that he thinks his company will be able to offer such a PC-to-TV application in one or two years that will use a wireless cable modem.)

Kotay said one of the key benefits of tru2way, from Comcast’s perspective, was that it creates a national infrastructure for software development and deployment.

He reemphasized using the tru2way platform for software in the session titled, “Tru Blue: The Sky’s the Limit for Cable’s iTV Future.” By using the two-way capabilities of tru2way across its national backbone, Comcast can deploy downloads into set-top boxes on a national scale instead of system-by-system.

During the same panel, Kotay said the cable industry needs to invest in better tools for the tru2way platform. He also said the industry needs to come up with processes for how tru2way products are certified and deployed by operators large and small as well certification for the development community.

There also needs to be a business model for developers and the cable industry that monetizes the applications and advertising, as well as creating a billing process, for all of the parties involved.

James Kelso
James Kelso

Cox Communications’ James Kelso, vice president, video engineering, said during the same panel session that his company is working in lockstep on both tru2way and the Project Canoe initiatives. Project Canoe – since renamed Canoe Ventures – is an industry-wide initiative that seeks to build a common advertising platform to serve up advertising spots to advertising and media agencies across the nation.

“Our Project Canoe and tru2way folks sit right next to each other,” Kelso said. “There’s been a lot of progress with Canoe. There isn’t anything in our shop that’s not associated with Project Canoe.”

Giving cable the business
While the business services industry represents a $60 billion opportunity for cable operators, they’ve just started to scratch the service.

In the session called, “Best Practices: Roadmap to Business Services Operational Success,” Cox Business’ Kristine Faulkner, vice president, product development and management, asked a panel of cable operator employees their respective approaches for tapping into the commercial services market that has traditionally been dominated by ILECs.

Time Warner Cable Business Class’ Dave Montierth, regional vice president, Los Angeles, said the first opportunity for his company is the small to medium businesses sector. Once those customers are on board, Time Warner Cable Business Class will go after the larger enterprise customers.

Bresnan Communications’ Steve Brookstein, executive vice president, operations, said his company is working on building a commercial services platform that focuses on voice and data with some video applications as well. Bresnan wanted to implement its suite of business services so it wasn’t just reliant on residential revenues and because of the higher margins in offering commercial services.

“The market is there, and it’s there for the taking,” Brookstein said.

Mitch Bowling, Comcast Cable’s senior vice president and general manager, online services, said business services represented an extension of platforms that Comcast already had in place for voice, video and data services.

Optimum Lightpath, a division of Cablevision, took a different path to its business services offerings when it committed to a separate fiber infrastructure for Ethernet services several years ago, according to Dave Pistacchio, Optimum Lightpath’s executive vice president and general manager. The end result is that Optimum Lightpath has been able to successfully target large enterprise customers such as hospitals and governmental agencies.

Optimum Lightpath is also able to divide customers with Cablevision’s cable modem business services unit, which allows it to offer a service to branch offices that are outside of its fiber footpath.

itaas booth
Tru2way demonstrations were all over the show floor, including several in the itaas booth, during the recent NCTA Cable Show in New Orleans.

Show me the money
The cable industry knows the clock is ticking on getting targeted and interactive TV ads to customers across the nation, but there’s plenty of work to be done on the foundation first.

During the panel, “Upper Hand: Cable’s Advanced Advertising Advantage,” the panelists discussed the advantages that cable has that will help eat into the $60 billion to $70 billion broadcast advertising pie as well as how to take back revenue that has been lost to the Internet.

Overall, the cable industry has Canoe Ventures in the works, but the effort to set up a national, industry-wide advertising platform has a lot of moving parts.

John Collins, Time Warner Cable’s group vice president of advanced advertising technologies, said Project Canoe won’t suddenly appear intact over the next three to six months, but it will grow through an evolutionary process.

“We’ll see milestones, but there’s a great urgency to have tests and business models,” Collins said.

Collins said the cable industry needs standards and new business models for interactive and addressable advertising, and that programmers should be engaged in the value chain as well.

Collins said advanced advertising is “our game to win or lose,” but that cable has an advantage since it’s already in so many consumers’ homes.

Billy Farina
Billy Farina

Cox Communications’ Billy Farina, senior vice president, advertising sales, said advanced advertising is about “delivering the right message to the right person at the right time with the right functionality.”

“It’s making the end user have a better experience,” Farina said.

Farina said some of the disadvantages of advanced advertising include being a first mover in the space, the number of legacy set-top boxes in the field and the lack of standards. He said cable has an advantage in knowing its customers through triple play services, but “marketers need to know our customers intimately.”

While Project Canoe is complex as a whole, there are bits and pieces, such as telescoping in VOD and overlays, that can be implemented in stages. But to really have an impact, cable needs to get out of the starting blocks with a national offering that works, according to Comcast Spotlight President Charlie Thurston.

“Cable has a lot of work to do, but this is a great opportunity,” said Brian Hunt, NBC Universal’s senior vice president of marketing and sales strategy. “I’m encouraged by Project Canoe and the investments made in infrastructure, but we need that scale on the national network side.”

Microsoft was at the show presenting a paper explaining how its Atlas operation is providing ad inventory and management systems that interface with VOD systems. Ordinarily, VOD ads are embedded with the VOD asset. The critical element of the Microsoft Atlas system is the ability to insert ads dynamically, thus enabling MSOs to insert timely ads with content ordered on-demand.

Microsoft’s Brent Roraback, a co-author of the paper, talked about the results of two deployments of the system. The basic question explored was about the effectiveness of pre-roll versus post-roll ads, and the lengths of ads. As expected, shorter ads got watched in their entirety, but perhaps counter-intuitively, a greater percentage of people than expected stuck with longer ads (120 seconds).

TWC Principal Architect Steve Reidl delivered a paper he co-wrote with BigBand Networks’ Chief Architect Doug Jones on a phased approach to implementing an addressable advertising system using a switched digital platform.

Measurement of audience response is critical, but privacy issues are a concern, Reidl warned. “Talk to your attorneys first.”

Infinite content
Some people just don’t like Adam Sandler films or comic books brought to life, so the strategy of delivering the top-10 movies doesn’t work for every customer. What’s an MSO to do?

Comcast fellow Weidong Mao was the author of a paper on the evolution of a managed network that can access, through the Internet, content libraries in addition to an MSO’s own. In other words, MSOs are going to have to consider hosting over-the-top video.

Concurrent and several of its customers (unidentified) are exploring the viability of large, regional asset libraries that distribute content to local networks. While the concept so far is sound, there’s more to explore, including how such a system will behave with more HD content, and whether it will work with services like StartOver.

A paper from researchers at Cisco, “Unicast Video Without Breaking the Bank,” looked at the economic justification of unicast SDV. The authors concluded that the potential for targeted advertising can perhaps justify the migration to unicast.

Remember the customers
During the “Hitting on All Cylinders: Cable’s Operational Outlook” session, moderator Char Beales, the CEO and president of CTAM, asked the panel of cable operator employees what cable is doing right in regards to its customers and what it can improve upon.

Marwan Fawaz
Marwan Fawaz

When each panelist was asked by Beales, “What are you doing to make your consumers love you?,” Marwan Fawaz, Charter’s CTO, said it all came down to three words: convenience, value and innovation.

Fawaz pointed toward the increased download speeds that DOCSIS 3.0 will give customers as an example of innovation, along with moving content between PCs, TVs and mobile devices.

From the convenience angle, Fawaz said it was a matter of “tying up the bundle,” while PacketCable Multimedia was a good example of value for the voice side of the business.

Michael Doyle, Comcast’s president, eastern division, said the mantra was all about doing more: bundling more products, increasing speeds and more HD channels, while HD VOD “is extremely robust.”

Jill Campbell, Cox’s senior vice president, operations, said her company chose not to compete in price wars with Verizon and AT&T, but to instead focus on getting higher customer service marks than the competition.

“Our employees are our best line of defense,” Campbell said. “They (AT&T and Verizon) can’t sustain the price forever since they have to deliver to their shareholders, and that’s when they’ll come back to us.”

Campbell and Doyle both said Verizon did a good job with softening the markets up with advertising prior to the launch of FiOS services. Campbell said Verizon also was effective with its door-to-door campaigns in neighborhoods, but Fawaz said the four-to-eight hour installs by Verizon weren’t a pleasant experience for the Verizon customers.

Time Warner Cable’s Sam Howe, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said one effective tool in the “ground wars” with the competition was price locks. By offering a guaranteed price for two years, Time Warner Cable saw a 40 percent drop in customer churn in Staten Island.

Cable votes
The imminent presidential election led to a session that drew four FCC ex-commissioners to discuss broadband policy, one as moderator, and three as proxies for candidates Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama.

Susan Ness, speaking for the Clinton campaign, Bill Kennard for Obama, and Michael Powell, representing McCain, agreed the FCC in recent years has become far too partisan to be functional.

All three candidates are likely to appoint commissioners who have expertise in the communications market and who will follow the law – that last point was an implicit criticism of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. The candidates are likely to use tax policy to create incentives to specifically encourage R&D.

Kennard wryly observed that it’s rare that elections turn on communications policy.