Cable Touts Diverse Offerings

Befitting the resurgence of digital convergence, last month's National Cable & Telecommunications Association annual convention served up a Southern smorgasbord of video/data/voice "triple play" developments and cross-platform program distribution.
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Cross-platform, digital switching emerge as key factors at NCTA confab

ATLANTA

Befitting the resurgence of digital convergence, last month's National Cable & Telecommunications Association annual convention served up a Southern smorgasbord of video/data/voice "triple play" developments and cross-platform program distribution. Motorola's "Follow-Me" and Cisco/Scientific-Atlanta's "Connected Life" motifs accelerated expectations that viewers will soon be transporting content around the house and on the road.

Four sessions on videogames plus an expanded gaming exhibition pavilion underscored the belief that games are converging into the broadband entertainment mix. In addition, several more networks--including Scripps Networks and A&E--launched high-definition channels at the convention.

PROTECTING TURF

The "network PVR" got plenty of attention, thanks to a Cablevision Systems' announcement that it will soon introduce the service. Switched digital video and the role of home network gateways were under scrutiny at several sessions. And as always, the parade of hopeful new program networks marched along--although many now seem resigned to reside solely on the digital "on demand" platforms that cable operators are building.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin made a fly-by appearance, primarily to meet with cable executives and tour the exhibit area. At a news conference (his only public presentation) following his floor walk, Martin focused on the topic that seemed to spur his one-day cable show visit: indecency. He advocated "additional tiering options" as being valuable for families, and acknowledged that "putting more control in hands of the consumers is always better than having government control."

Martin singled out the emergence of Internet protocol video as a process that will generate "greater competition," an allusion to the nascent telephone company video ventures.

Attendance of 15,500 at the convention--down about nine percent from last year's 17,000--reflected industry consolidation plus the timing during spring break, which distracted some potential attendees for family matters.

The changing architecture of the cable TV industry was apparent throughout the show, but rarely as strongly as during an early morning, standing-room only session featuring the CTOs of four cable giants: Comcast, Time-Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Roger Cable Communications.

Time Warner Cable Chief Technology Officer Mike LaJoie focused on the move toward digital switching, which he says can trigger "50 percent savings" in operating costs. "It happens pretty easily," he continued, noting that the switching for broadcast digital is "not that hard."

"Switching is the ultimate answer," LaJoie said, as he forecast that it would be almost universal within less than 10 years. "The notion of channelized video is going to go away over time. Most people will be looking for particular kinds of programming, and that programming might come from a downlink from a broadcaster."

Chris Bowick, senior vice president of engineering for Cox added his voice to the chorus of voices extolling the value of digital video switching, which he called cable's "next big priority." He said that Cox will roll out switched digital transmission this year in two markets, which have not yet been named.

GUSHING ABOUT HD

As cable operators wrangle with how to supply set-top DVRs and/or networked DVR service, the chief geeks agreed that the recording capability is widely embraced. Comcast Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer David Fellows said that, where it is offered, 35 percent of set-top boxes installed include HD and DVR functions.

Regarding Time Warner Cable's HD lineup, Lajoie said "as more good HD programs become available, we're going to put [them] on. There's nothing in our way to offer more HD programming other than the normal incremental investment."

At the CTO panel, and throughout most of the NCTA sessions, cable executives used every opportunity to bash telephone company efforts to establish video services.

"The reason Verizon talks about fiber is that's all they have to talk about," LaJoie said. "The reason DBS talk about HD is that's all they have."

As the self-appreciation grew, the technologists further praised their existing and upgraded hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) networks. They agreed that the facilities can do almost anything that telcos promise to offer via all-fiber IPTV facilities.

Mark Coblitz, senior vice president of strategic planning for Comcast promised that his company will "eventually extend the IP base that we already have." He said Comcast can deliver a "multicast" service which would deliver all programs constantly, making signals available--but not to all subscribers all the time.

HARDWARE & SERVICES

Meanwhile, the NCTA's exhibit halls filled with technology providers, with many focused on the special needs of bandwidth management (such as BigBand Networks), security (such as NDS and its Secure Video Processing subsidiary) and billing.

Cisco's acquisition of Scientific-Atlanta allowed the two companies to cross-demonstrate their capabilities--many of them built around what Cisco CEO John Chambers, in his appearance on a keynote panel, called the "connected home." The package also showcased devices and data/video convergence from home networking giant Linksys, which Cisco acquired several years earlier.

Motorola, which had already aggregated wired and wireless technologies, demonstrated seamless handoffs among devices, using a new cable modem which recognizes the presence of a mobile phone. The set-up allows users to transition from a mobile connection to their wired line when they enter their homes. Motorola, which expanded its all-digital cable STB line-up, introduced a standard-definition, dual tuner DVR (DCT3080) and a slim STB with built-in Follow Med capabilities (DCC100).

Cablevision's plan to develop a networked DVR generated extensive buzz but left many questioning the industry's ability to scale similar projects. Arroyo Video Solutions will support the initial trial; its "Vault" server will be used to store up to 2,500 hours of content and stream up to 3,000 simultaneous programs. Some suppliers have questioned whether this approach will work if many viewers store and playback the same show from the same headend at different times.