Defining the Future Of Broadband

SCTE presents three 'Cs' of emerging tech
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SCTE presents three 'Cs' of emerging tech


John Clark, president of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE), summed up the industry's destiny with three Cs: consumers, competition and convergence. And at SCTE's Conference on Emerging Technologies here last month, the speakers seemed to comply, scaring the audience with the second "C," when dazzling them with prospects for the other two seemed insufficient.

Headliner Paul Allen--the power behind Charter Communications, Vulcan and Digeo, a developer of cable and satellite set-tops--opened with glowing commentary about convergence. According to his vision, by using a "Quad-Play" approach, the cable industry could create a "digital-centric world" emanating from its media center platforms in customer homes.

"Quad-Play," he said, is the "seamless flow of entertainment, information, communications and control access for four distinct services," namely, TV (the HD variety), data (archives, navigation and on-demand and other interactivity), telephony (voice over IP) and wireless (mobile device connections). "Some people suggested I call it '4-Play,' but I resisted the urge," he noted coyly.

He estimated delivery of the vision at five to ten years--if the industry comes up with field operations to integrate the components seamlessly and robustly. Quality of service is paramount, as is improved bandwidth efficiency. But he's optimistic.

"Our networks are designed to grow in capacity beyond four gigs per second per coax," according to one slide. Allen said that "Digeo (set-top boxes) have the same CPU as a PC does (and) there's a lot more room in the platform." Moreover, he pointed out more than once, that technology is quickly becoming faster and more powerful--as well as cheaper.

And he's convinced consumers will be excited, illustrating this claim with the "penetration hockey stick" charted by a graph from the Yankee Group that projected DVR penetration in the United States, other prognostications, and customer anecdotes.

Allen was comforting in regards to competition, both for TV and future services.

"We use 10:1 compression; the picture quality is actually better than satellite," he said. "We're in the driver's seat going forward. We have a superior platform... the combination of high bandwidth communications and versatile and evolving computing platforms is really something that nobody else out there has."

Still, he was pretty amazed at the ability to watch the World Series live in Japan on a satellite mobile phone.


Other featured speakers were more concerned about the competition.

With a nod to Allen's quip, Liberty Media's chief technology officer, Tony Werner said, "cable may be in the driver's seat--but competition's in the rear view mirror: Objects may be closer than they appear."

For example, he said, Sony's "Time Machine" technology--encapsulated in the computer/home-server system called Vaio Type X, which went on sale last November--can record a week's worth of broadcasts by all seven of the country's TV networks. And, he said, during a trip to Amsterdam, Sony's portable Airboard TV was able to order video-on-demand from Japan. "The pictures were not bad," he said.

Both developments put Allen's cable-centric vision of the future in question, as would the projected "Terapod," a portable device, which, said Werner, could "store everything watched in the past 10 years."

Consultant Sandy Teger, co-founder of System Dynamics, a Morris Plains, N.J.-based broadband consulting firm, pointed out that more and more dollars were being thrown at wireless communications in this country, while cable remained "tethered to the home." The big question was how cable would address the shift to "personal broadband." DSL, she noted, was already setting up WiFi hotspots, the WiMax standard (802.16e, she said, is expected by May) and various "disruptive technologies."

Dr. David Reed, CableLab's chief strategy officer, was somewhat more conciliatory. "I think that cable is well-positioned," he said, but cautioned that DSL was "a threat that needs to be treated seriously."

He also noted that DSL has more subscribers worldwide than cable (78 million households vs. 46 million at year-end 2004, according to his calculations), including those in technologically innovative hotbeds, like Japan and Korea. He also predicted the gap would widen as China adopts broadband.

Jim Farmer, chief technology officer for Wave7 Optics, a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) company based in Alpharetta, Ga., described FTTH as "cable TV on steroids," and produced a chart of various factors comparing FTTH to cable's Hybrid Fiber Coaxial networks. HFC lost.

Lastly, Steve Osman, director of engineering and new service development for SES Americom, reminded the audience that satellite technology was also a contender. Backing his assessment were his company's boosted amp power, multibeam satellites, H.264/VC-1 compression, DVB-S2 and DiSEqC (Digital Satellite Equipment Control) standards and multifrequency antennae.


But just when things were looking less rosy, there appeared a protocol claiming to deliver up to 640 Mbps to a single modem over existing HFC plants.

"With this kind of bandwidth, cable operators can converge video, voice and data services into a single IP-based offering, increase revenues, and win the bandwidth race," stated the invitation to a demo from Cisco.

Due out on the market later this year, Cisco's wideband protocol for DOCSIS was demonstrated at private events in Japan and at a Wall Street analyst conference last December. In a new card for headends and cable modems, it's capable of delivering 1 Gb of information per second. This compares quite favorably to the 38 Mbps currently generated by a 256 QAM, 6 MHz format using the DOCSIS 2.0 standard.

The protocol was also submitted to CableLabs as a specification for the new DOCSIS 3.0 standard. The SCTE event marked its first public demonstration.

Code-named "Ferrari" in-house, the protocol was described by project leader John Chapman, Cisco's distinguished engineer and chief cable architect," as "a real Skunk Works scenario."

"The challenge to Cisco was not just to double or triple bandwidth capacity but increase it by a factor of 100 or 1,000," said Chapman.

Specifically, Chapman said, "We're using SIDs (Service Identifiers) to set up the wideband--the SID pool becomes related to the actual transmission." He also noted, "we're introducing a hierarchical service flow mechanism."

The current solution overlays Cisco's wideband protocol over existing deployments; priority is given to downstream applications.