Atlanta—Cable's top engineers appear completely confident that no matter what DBS or telco competitors come up with, operators can meet or beat it with their HFC networks. In fact, after an hour of talking about technology and infrastructure during a panel on Monday morning, Time Warner CTO Mike LaJoie nearly exploded.

"It does not matter one bit," LaJoie said, later adding for good measure: "IPTV? It's a buzzword, like freaking 'fiber.' Who cares how it gets there? It's a silly discussion. We can do all of it."

Fellow panelists Dave Fellows of Comcast Corp., Chris Bowick of Cox Communications, and Dermot O'Carroll of Rogers Cable were in agreement.

Still, though MSOs can perhaps do it all on an HFC network, they haven't done it all yet.

When moderator Leslie Ellis asked about developments to look for in the near future, LaJoie called DCAS (downloadable conditional access system) a sleeper but critical going forward; Bowick said the industry will be pushing for ubiquity of IP infrastructure to support telephony and will be working on wireless; O'Carroll said Rogers will be transitioning to switched transmission and launching HSDPA to accelerate its wireless service data rates.

LaJoie said Time Warner's trial with switching is going well, rendering bandwidth economies of better than 50 percent. The company will have it in four to six systems by the end of 2006, and roll it out more extensively next year. As for OCAP (OpenCable Application Platform), LaJoie said Time Warner is aiming at a full-scale rollout in July of next year.

Bowick said Cox is will deploy switching in two markets this year. "There's not a sense of urgency for switching like there was for simulcast," he added. Cox is also conducting trials of PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM), a CableLabs-specified architecture that injects QoS into a range of IP apps. The first application is a speed preview that allows customers to taste HSD speed increases for a limited period.

The introduction of the place-shifting Slingbox device from Sling Media clearly has clearly caught everyone's attention. The engineers on the panel said there was nothing new there technologically, and had they thought space-shifting was legal, they might have tried offering it as a service themselves - and may yet do so.

If operators want to offer something similar, however, there would be licensing issues, LaJoie said, given that most MSOs have contracts with content providers that have geographical limitations. Those contracts would have to be renegotiated.

Ellis asked if the telcos "were providing any hurt yet?" Fellows drew a laugh when he said: "Yeah, they have 95 percent of my telephone customers."

In response to the question of whether HFC or FTTH was superior, Fellows observed that even with FTTH, the connection from the wall to the box was coax. "It's all HFC," he dryly observed. LaJoie drew another laugh when he interjected with: "HFC is better because it exists."

Bowick said when Cox was faced with rebuilding from scratch in New Orleans, it evaluated fiber-to-the-curb and to-the-home technologies, and re-evaluated HFC. Given the inherent capabilities, the lower costs, and the potential to split nodes at will, Cox chose HFC.

Competition, the panelists agreed, is going to be about features, not the infrastructure. Verizon talks about fiber and DBS talks about 1500 HD channels "because they've got nothing else to talk about," LaJoie said.

Ellis asked about the shortage of set-tops that beset operators this year. Fellows and Bowick said it was self-inflicted - they didn't order enough. LaJoie said TWC had an aggressive plan and had ordered enough to avoid the problem.

The panelist all said they are now installing more HD-DVRs than any other type of box, by far.

Fellows provided a status report on Comcast's proposed RNG (Residential Network Gateway) boxes. The low-end RNG-100 box, which was supposed to be $35, is now just under $100 after adding advanced codecs (MPEG-4 or VC-1), the memory and processing to handle OCAP, and other features.