Cable Shifts From TV

Digital television and the looming DTV transition were in the spotlight even before the National Cable and Telecommunications Association officially opened its annual convention last month.
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Special to TV Technology

LAS VEGAS

Digital television and the looming DTV transition were in the spotlight even before the National Cable and Telecommunications Association officially opened its annual convention last month. But video-on-demand in all versions was even more pervasive, as operators, vendors and programmers confronted the new competition for cable TV.

In the six years since NCTA changed the “T” in its acronym from television to telecommunications, the convention focus has shifted towards non-video services. This year’s Cable Show agenda and exhibit showed that voice and data represented growing opportunities for cable operators. From the preconvention seminars on the Open Cable Applications Platform through the frequent keynote references to triple-play victories, the 15,000 attendees heard constant reminders that cable is not simply about video anymore.

CABLE AND THE FCC

Citing the convention’s theme of competition, NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow said in his welcoming remarks that competition encouraged the industry to expand phone services and “forced telcos to branch out into video service.” He said that cable’s 10 million voice customers far outpace the telephone companies’ video subscribers.

“When the government… regulates with a light touch, consumers win,” McSlarrow said.

The NCTA chief also politely responded to earlier comments by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who reasserted his support of á là carte programming and multichannel must-carry. Martin said he is “an avid cable customer” and reminded the industry that he has “supported efforts to refrain from regulating your broadband service.”

The FCC chief then repeated his strong belief that cable companies should provide the multiple DTV signals of local broadcasters.“

If you advocate subjecting broadcast channels to consumer choice, then why shouldn’t cable be similarly subject to free-market choices?” Martin asked.

He also addressed the July 1 deadline for the ban on set-top box security integration, which would push the function exclusively into CableCards. Martin said small, rural, cable systems may need extra time to handle the mandate, but he remained dismayed about the large number of blanket waiver requests to delay implementation.

Martin offered to continue industry discussions about all of these issues. McSlarrow said that the industry appreciated the offer, but added, “It is puzzling that Chairman Martin does not take the same approach to [an] open marketplace.”

DTV, VOD AND BEYOND

A few hours before the NCTA convention’s officially opened, Retirement Living TV, a channel aimed at senior citizens, assembled a panel of experts to explain the “Countdown to Conversion,” also the name of a show on the network. McSlarrow, along with FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, National Telecommunications and Information Administrator John Kneuer and Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller were among the panelists fielding question from around 60 local seniors.

Several of them asked scripted questions about the federal coupon subsidy program and the need for set-top converters after analog TV goes dark. The panelists shared their oft-heard explanations about the process for the DTV conversion, assuring viewers that they were not likely to miss TV shows if they follow the transition formalities.

The DTV transition popped up several other times during the NCTA convention. At a public policy luncheon, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said, “We’ll rely on the private sector to get the word out… We’ll see a crescendo around the timeframe” just before the analog cutoff date.

WIDEBAND ON THE WAY


(click thumbnail)Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts demonstrated the advances in broadband during the State of the Industry general session.Another type of technology evolution grabbed the convention spotlight when Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts unveiled a wideband initiative. The ultra high-speed service–up to 160 Mbps–will be used for movie and video delivery using third-generation Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS 3.0) technology.

“With wideband, we’re going to unleash a whole new era of video,” Roberts said, as Arris Chairman and CEO Robert J. Stanzione transmitted hefty visual and multimedia files.

Using the next generation of cable modem technology, wideband could be used for broadband distribution of movies, games and other content using channel-bonding technology. For the 160 Mbps transmission, four conventional 6 MHz channels were combined to transmit about 5 GB of data in less than four minutes.

“The tough part is to find four channels to bind the pieces together,” Roberts said. Cable executives contended that the price of the upgrade to DOCSIS 3.0 will only require a “few billion dollars,” compared to the $100 billion spent to upgrade to digital cable during the past decade.

They also intend wideband technology to give them a lead in the telco video assault. The wideband demonstration underscored the emphasis of on-demand services, especially video-on-demand.

As a result, several presentations and many exhibits focused on tools for on-demand delivery and channel capacity management.

For example, the fast development of switched video has a generated new generation of tools to manage its implementation. BigBand Networks Inc. unveiled a Switched Video Analysis technology for monitoring viewership. Initial applications of SVA analyzed BigBand’s switched broadcast deployments, and the company said an unidentified “major cable operator” is using SVA to optimize bandwidth dedicated to switched video to increase the number of channels that can be supported simultaneously.

Home networking, a presence on the convention agenda for several years, found new life this year with an HD application. Pulse-Link Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif., maker of ultrawideband chips, introduced a whole-home HD entertainment networking system. The company’s Cwave UWB chipset enables HD content be shared across existing coax backbones with wireless connectivity among all types of multimedia equipment.

At its demonstration, Pulse-Link showed multiroom connectivity of 1080p HDTV content streamed through standard coax, with IPTV functionality and interactive navigation and control options.

Another exhibitor, Digeo of Kirkland, Wash., introduced two new Moxi products designed for cable operators—a high-definition DVR and Moxi for OCAP. The HD DVR includes the Moxi Menu, which includes a graphical program guide that integrates VOD and PPV content in its search results.

MORE CONVERGENCE

Mobile video was omnipresent at the show, just as it was three weeks earlier at the NAB convention, also in Las Vegas.

Sprint, which has quietly spent the past year working with Comcast, Time Warner, Cox Communications and Advance/Newhouse on a cable-mobile alliance, demonstrated the newly christened “Pivot.” Pivot allows cable subscribers to access home TV from a handheld phone device.

Motorola demonstrated the newest tools in its Follow Me TV portfolio, which enables viewers to move content around the home and onto portable devices. Motorola, based in Schaumburg, Ill., also unveiled Cable PON, a technology that delivers passive-optical network functions over existing cable infrastructures. The technology combines existing hybrid-fiber coax and PON network architectures. It’s being positioned as a migration path toward fiber-to-the-premises.

Systems for dynamic advertising insertion were on display from many vendors, but executive such as Oxygen Networks president and chief operating officer, Lisa Gersh, fretted that development is not moving fast enough. Gersh said that only a handful of advertisers have developed integrated advertising strategies that assure new media and interactive ad campaigns are coordinated with conventional marketing.

The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau held its annual spring conference in collaboration with the NCTA program for the first time this year, and unveiled results of its second “Which Screen?” study, conducted by Frank Magid Associates. CAB President Sean Cunningham summarized the results as showing most people still watch TV content on a TV.

Only 28 percent of respondents said they expect to see advertising on other devices such as mobile phones or iPods. Cunningham said 81 percent of people surveyed said the iPod was “not appropriate” for advertising, and 87 percent said the same about mobile phones.

“Television is the only medium with a valid ‘advertising contract’ with viewers,” Cunningham said. Many of the convention’s highest-tech demonstrations were in the CableNet pavilion, coordinated by Cable Television Laboratories. For example, Quartics, a Taiwan chipmaker, quietly demonstrated its PC2TV technology, which can send multimedia content wirelessly from a PC to a TV in hi-def without buffering.

The attention to VOD and advanced services at the show offered a preview of future NCTA conventions—with an emphasis on the “T” as in both television and telecommunications.