Cable Show Takes on OTT

NCTA CEO Michael Powell

CHICAGO—“Retooling of the show is recognition that the digital economy is broader than just cable,” said Mark Bell, vice president of industry affairs at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association about the group’s annual convention. The show, now known as INTX for “Internet and Television Expo,” is coming up May 5-7 in Chicago’s McCormick Place. From the unusual layout of the exhibit floor to outsourced segments of the high-profile general sessions, INTX’s organizers expect that the event will intensify cross-industry focus on such topics as over-the-top competition, wireless integration and back-end operations.

Depending on the approval status of pending mergers—notably Comcast/Time Warner Cable and the AT&T/DirecTV—deal-making is likely to permeate event. The overlapping interests of cable’s traditional rivals will also be in the spotlight, as Dish-parent company EchoStar will exhibit its SlingTV OTT service on the show floor, and an AT&T executive will speak on at least one keynote session.

“Every day, the digital landscape changes and the networks that enable it becomes more powerful,” said NCTA president and CEO Michael Powell. “This new expo will highlight all of these new trends and voices in every corner of today’s digital economy… Now is a perfect time to reinvent the way we come together,”

Cross-industry competition is also on the minds of the cable guys heading to Chicago.

“Today’s telco, wireless, satellite and cable operators are desperately trying to compete with Apple, Google, as well as over-the-top providers, to provide more competitive service offerings to their customers,” said Jim MacDonald, vice president of sales and marketing of UXP Systems Inc. His firm will demonstrate its business support and operation system software. MacDonald characterizes the “biggest challenge” for all carriers as “their existing backend systems that are making this transition ... to individual user experience orientation ... so difficult.”

Sachin Sathaye, vice president product strategy and marketing at ActiveVideo, believes his company’s successful project to virtualize set-top box functionality in the cloud—an integration of YouTube service for its client UPC Hungary—“has shown that any online video service can be delivered to every digital set-top box in an operator’s footprint, without the cost or time-to-market of installing new, high-end boxes.”

“We think deployment at scale of online video to existing pay-TV STBs will begin within the next 12 months in North America,” Sathaye said.

The growing role of software throughout the industry will also ripple throughout INTX.

“A major theme we expect to see at INTX is the shift of pay TV operators becoming more like software companies and embracing the move towards DevOps,” said John Maguire, chief strategy officer of TV technology at S3 Group. “As operators transform the way they approach product development, testing and service introductions, the ‘test and launch’ mindset is being displaced by a more agile ‘launch and test’ mindset.” Maguire expects that operators will want to focus on “continuous test and quality assurance”—services that Ireland-based S3 Group provides in validating platforms and as overseer of software code facility for the RDK Management, LLC.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler will address the convention on Wednesday, likely explaining what happens next in the Net Neutrality process; NCTA intends to add its legal challenge to the lineup of court challenges to the recent FCC ruling. Three of the other FCC commissioners were confirmed to participate on the agenda at presstime; NCTA expects that the full commissioner line-up plus many of their legal advisers and FCC Bureau Chiefs will speak at various sessions. About 30 congressional staff members will also participate in group discussions on the “Imagine Park” stage.

Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts will speak at Tuesday’s opening session, which will also introduce a new format. In addition to main-stage keynote discussions among top executives, NCTA has outsourced two prime sessions to re/Code, which is sponsors and in which Comcast is an investor.

Among the executives confirmed to participate are Peter Chernin, whose Chernin Group is developing content for a variety of platform providers, including AT&T; Nancy Dubec, president and CEO of A&E Networks; and Kerry Trainor, CEO of Vimeo. Michael Kassan, chairman and CEO of MediaLink, will host a general session focused on developments interconnecting content and technology providers.

“We’re trying to break the silos, have everyone talk to each other,” said Barbara York, NCTA’s senior vice president of industry affairs. She cites a new event for CxO’s—the “chief” officers in various disciplines—as an update of the convention’s traditional panel featuring chief technology officers from cable companies and vendors.

The exhibit floor, now called “INTX Marketplace,” will feature about 300 exhibitors. The area has been “reimagined,” Bell said, to resemble L’Enfant’s layout of Washington, D.C., with “boulevards, plazas and circles” at various “intersections” of the aisle grid.

“Everything happens at the intersections,” Bell said, describing the aggregation of themed displays at the five primary intersections: TV Everywhere; Streaming Media, Internet of Things, Navigation and Games/Immersive Entertainment. At the larger intersections, more than a dozen kiosks and stand-alone displays will “give those who are not familiar with us a chance to stick a toe in the water,” York said.

For a deeper dive into technology, the annual Spring Technical Forum will feature 43 technical papers presented at eight sessions on topics including IoT, moving optical networks deeper into the home, and DOCSIS 3.1 development.

“There will be continued focus in the sessions on the technologies for individual consumption, higher speed data transfer, and architecture evolvement,” said Dan Pike, the long-time chair of the Forum’s “papers committee,” a group of top technology executives who review proposed papers with, what Pike calls, “deep awareness and foresight. “Forefront focus will be topics such as cybersecurity, the Internet of Things, 4K video and software integration with traditional hardware.”

NCTA will also sponsor a Hackathon involving Chicago-area schools to develop software appropriate for cable projects.

“We think it’s important to encourage young entrepreneurs to innovate on the cable platform,” Bell said. “There’s a large tech community in Chicago.”

NCTA has partnered with “1871,” a local technology incubator, and a dozen partners from the cable and communications industry. Bell expects up to 200 young local developers will start working on projects just before INTX begins; the top six projects will be showcased near Imagine Park beginning Wednesday.

The decades-old CableNet collection of table-top-sized exhibits of emerging technologies, has been also been rebranded and is now called “Tek Stadium.” CableLabs manages the 680-square-foot collection of technical exhibits, that will integrate more than 30 demonstrations ranging from automated Ethernet workflow to intelligent WiFi traffic steering. The exhibits encompass 4K UHD-TV, managed device software and applications, subscriber messaging platforms, IoT, next-generation platform security and “monetization of multiscreen TV.”

Throughout INTX, there will be speeches and demonstrations as operators, programmers and tech vendors try to figure out how to exploit cloud capabilities for multi-platform delivery. Vendors such as thePlatform, a subsidiary of Comcast, will focus their INTX messages on cloud strategies.

“The opportunity now exists to create far more unified viewing experiences that blend linear, VOD, rentals, specialized bundles, and purchases, while respecting viewing windows and content rights obligations,” said Marty Roberts, co-CEO of thePlatform. “The friction caused by these silos remains too high.”

Todd Collart, general manager of Deluxe OnDemand, summarized the complexity facing the cable industry.

“Our customers are looking for opportunities to monetize the big screen experience and TVE applications,” Collart said. “We’ll be showcasing solutions that will accelerate their ability to bring 4K UHD services to market and launch an electronic sell-through offering with a deep library of multiscreen-ready movie and television content.”

Bringing dynamic advertising to the new multiplatform mix is also on the INTX agenda.

“We’re seeing the rollout of video advertising solutions follow the consumer trend toward time-shifted viewing on smartphones, tablets and other IP devices,” said Nick Troiano, president and CEO, BlackArrow. “Our customers are investing in solutions that let them monetize TV Everywhere content so that advertisers can get their messages to consumers in a targeted way, across all screens.”

Metrological, Rotterdam-based TV app provider, has high hopes for its first appearance at the U.S. cable convention. The company, which recently won an European Cable Congress Innovation award, will exhibit and its CTO will present a paper at the Tech Forum.

“INTX is a big show for us,” said Jeroen Ghijsen, CEO and co-founder of Metrological. “We are looking forward to ... the growing industry discussions around integrating apps into the overall cable video experience.”

The convention’s co-chairs Alfred Liggins, chairman and CEO of TV One, and Jerry Kent, chairman and CEO of Suddenlink Communications, concur about the need for inter-industry agreements.

“We’ve transcended old boundaries and entered promising new domains,” they said in a statement, calling INTX a reflection of “this reality.”

York, Bell and the NCTA organizers hope that the expected 10,000 attendees will appreciate the convergence of competing interests.

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.