Annual confab heads to Denver to focus on switched video, increasing competition
In a minimalist style that belies the growing complexity of cable TV technology, John Clark reduces the goal of the 2006 SCTE Cable-Tec Expo to two words: "keeping up."
Clark, president of the Society of Cable and Telecommunications Engineers, says that the 10,000 attendees expected to attend the annual event in Denver's Colorado Convention Center, June 20-23, will-as in past years-focus on what they need to stay up-to-date in the triple play environment of video, voice and data services.
This year's Tec-Expo has adopted as its subtitle the mantra that SCTE uses year-round to describe its mission: "All Engineering, All the Time." With 45 first-time technology exhibitors (among the 350 booths) and a cluster of field-trips to Denver-area cable technology facilities, Clark proclaims, "We have never put together an event of this scale."
Despite the technology focus, the realities of the triple-play landscape weigh heavily on the cable engineers. Conference Program Chairman Chris Bowick, senior vice president of engineering and chief technology officer of Cox Communications, points to the changing competitive environment.
"Our industry is in one of our most challenging periods thanks to increased competition," Bowick says. "With the [telephone companies] entering triple-play service deployments and laying fiber to the home, and with DBS offering bulk video channels and working at differentiation based on quantity in high-definition, it's clear that cable will be looking to its engineers to help stave off those threats. We've got a fight on our hands, and SCTE Cable-Tec Expo is all about ensuring that we're fit to compete."
Against that backdrop, SCTE is focusing on the technology and operations skills by which cable systems can deliver competitive services. In addition to Expo technical sessions, a Tuesday conference on broadband learning and development has been set up. Now in its second year, this program is intended to instruct managers on how to train their technical employees in new technologies. SCTE and its training advisory council (a group composed of technical managers from cable systems and vendors) created this one-day event.
"The program provides learning opportunities and dovetails with other expo sessions," explains Joel Welch, SCTE's director of certification and program development.
The SCTE's main program includes more than 20 workshops, most of them built around "best practices," a process that Clark acknowledged has never been called by that term in the past. There are also new sessions on "mobility" and on switched digital video.
"We're going into the sweet spot on that," Clark says, acknowledging cable technologists' expectations that switched digital video is cable's strongest competitive weapon against the telcos' Internet Protocol TV initiatives. The switched video theme ran strong at April's National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention.
"The session will focus on how to deploy next-generation switched digital video," Welch points out, and will feature speakers from bandwidth optimization firms such as Big Band Networks and RGB networks.
Fixed mobile convergence-a vehicle by which cable operators can integrate wireless services with their broadband functions-ranks so high on operators' minds that SCTE set up two sessions on the topic: one to address the overall deployment and another dealing with wireless mesh networks. Vendors such as Nortel, Arris and Motorola will speak at the sessions.
Turning to VoIP, two sessions will focus on issues such as network performance, remote testing and troubleshooting-all with the intent of assuring cable technicians that their services "can stand up to commercial VoIP" deployment, Clark said.
Although Internet Protocol figures into the VoIP discussions, overall the IP issue has diminished on this year's agenda compared to the last couple years.
"IP is a bit further out than we're talking about," Clark says. "The program is focused more on digital switched video and transitioning to all-digital technology." Examples of the new focus will include "Content Localization," a session in which Terayon Vice President Kanaiya Vasani will identify ways in which cable operators can deliver specific content to individual viewers. In a similar vein, Gil Katz of Harmonic will describe "Second Generation Channel Mosaic Solutions," focusing on how multiple channels can be viewed on one screen-a bow to the multi-tasking preferences of the emerging digital viewer.
As in recent years, the Expo agenda is recognizing the international and cultural diversity of the cable business. Five workshops will offer simultaneous Spanish translation, including sessions on the all-digital transition, switched broadcasting, business VoIP and wireless networks.
Clark also points out that for the first time in SCTE's history, women hold its two top positions. Yvette Gordon-Kanouff of SeaChange is chair, and Vicky Marts of Cox Communications is first vice chair. Overall, SCTE's membership roster is 92 percent male.
"In an age of consolidation, the link between field engineering and corporate engineering is closer than ever," Clark says. With that in mind, SCTE will offer more close-up experiences, including the new "Tour Tuesday." Noting that this is the first time in eight years that SCTE has held its annual Expo in the Denver area-which he calls "the spiritual home of cable"-Clark wants to take advantage of the locale. Attendees will be able to make site visits to one of four state-of the-art cable facilities: the Cable Center, Cable Television Laboratories, the Comcast Media Center or the Starz engineering center.
Clark and his SCTE colleagues also marvel at the speed at which products and services are becoming available-reinforcing their need to offer Tec-Expo sessions that enable its members to "keep up." Clark observes "how quickly products from 'new' to 'mainstream' to 'accepted.'"
"This is the challenge for the cable engineer: to manage resources," he adds. "Bandwidth management is 'Job One' for many of our members. With all the interest in these new services, network and bandwidth management is required." Clark points out that consumers say they want more and more features, which prompts cable engineers to focus more attention on resource management.
The hefty lineup of more than 350 exhibitors (occupying about 11 percent more floor space than last year) will also require Tec-Expo attendees to focus their attention in Denver. Among the product introductions expected to be unveiled in Denver are an array of set-top and headend devices.
For example, Pace Micro Technology will introduce its Miami DC757 all digital high-definition set-top box, along with a lineup of multi-room media servers for home networking and VoIP. The unit also features OCAP (Open Cable Applications Platform) support and an Electronic Program Guide. Pace will also show its next-generation Tahoe Media Server, which can handle HDTV and full DVR capability.
Concurrent will unveil its MediaHawk 4500 RAM-cache video-on-demand server. C-COR is expected to focus on switched video, starting with the opening day breakfast that it is sponsoring. Terayon will demonstrate its technology for Addressable Advertising and "Localization on Demand."
ICTV, the interactive TV provider, will demonstrate its "Active Video Distribution Network" that enables a broadband viewer experience via a TV set. The AVDN system brings together Web-driven content with live and VOD streams and an Internet advertising model on TV.
Vyyo will introduce the cable industry's highest-density platform for delivering T1 over hybrid fiber-coaxial networks. Its solution combines Adaptive Differential Pulse Code Modulation (ADPCM) compression with Vyyo's T1 and Spectrum Overlay products to deliver a 360 or more voice T1s per node, without impacting legacy services.
Other vendors will showcase products they displayed at April's NCTA show, focusing in Denver on the installation and operations aspects that appeal to field engineers, who (as John Clark repeats) just want to "keep up."