NCTA Show: Cable Ups the Ante on Speed

"Wideband" became the instant buzzword at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention this week when Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts demonstrated new cable modem technology that can transmit data--including high-definition video--at speeds up to 150 Mbps. Using the next generation of cable modem technology, Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0, "wideband" could be used for broadband distribution of movies, games and other content using "channel bonding" technology.

For the on-stage demonstration at a Cable Show keynote session, Roberts downloaded an encyclopedia (including audio, photo and video files) in less than four minutes; he noted that a similar effort via dial-up technology would take two weeks.

Roberts acknowledged that channel bonding to attain speeds of 150 Mpbs requires combining the capacity of four video channels. He noted that, "The tough part is to find four channels to bind the pieces together."

Filling in details later at the Cable Show, other Comcast executives suggested that cable operators could roll out DOCSIS 3.0 nationwide within a few years for a "couple billion dollars." That sum compares to $18 billion that Verizon has allotted to build FiOS in its territories. (On Verizon's "PolicyBlog" this week, Eric Rabe, vice president of communications for Verizon said the company's FiOS service can currently deliver up to 100 Mbps, but that based on customer needs, it sells 50 Mbps. "We are beginning to deploy next-generation GPON [gigabit passive optical networking], giving us the capability to deliver data speeds four times faster than the BPON [current] technology allows," Rabe said in his blog. "For Verizon, this is not years away but now.")

There is no current schedule for DOCSIS 3.0 deployment, Roberts said. He emphasized that "the best part" is that wideband is "incremental and backward-compatible" so it will be "quite easy" to implement.

Separately at the show, CableLabs revealed that it has established a three-tier program for certification of DOCSIS 3 equipment. CableLabs expects the first applications for cable modem termination systems and modems will be submitted by this fall.

In addition to its technological leap, wideband represents a controversial metamorphosis in the cable industry. Traditional multisystem operators (MSOs) are concerned that linear video offerings--especially the fast-growing video-on-demand services--could be affected by Internet-based downloading and viewing if viewers are distracted by the new technology. The looming controversy surfaced in several ways during the NCTA convention.

Several independent presentations used the term "metamorphosis" to describe cable's current transition phase. Convention Co-Chairman Patrick Esser, who is president of Cox Communications, used the term to describe the biggest explosion in new services that the industry has seen since the late 1970s.

At an earlier panel on digital advertising, Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau President Sean Cunningham described the explosion of "all things video" during the past seven months, focusing on the "video metamorphosis" of multiplatform advertising. Cunningham released data from CAB's newest "Which Screen?" study, comparing various ad formats, and concluded TV screen advertising remains the most viable video format for consumer acceptance.

The CAB study, conducted by Frank Magid Associates, found that barely 28 percent of respondents expect to see advertising on mobile devices such as the video iPod or mobile phones. Cunningham said, that 81 percent characterized the iPod as "not appropriate" for advertising, and 87 percent had the same negative attitudes toward ads on mobile phones.

Metamorphosis--or at least "change" and "transition" surfaced elsewhere during the NCTA convention. The DTV transition was addressed during several sessions, usually with strong assurances that cable companies would cooperate to meet the February 2009 deadline. To the surprise of many attendees, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin declared himself a friend of cable TV, despite his outspoken policy actions that have riled MSOs and programmers.

"I am an avid cable customer," Martin said. "I subscribe to digital cable, have three set-top boxes, two DVRs, high-speed access, and Wi-Fi all provided by cable."

He then went on to reaffirm his support of a la carte programming, the FCC's recent TV violence study and his position on the fast-approaching deadline for the cable set-top box integration ban (also known as CableCard deployment).

Regarding the CableCard issue, Martin said, "We are in the process of ruling on the multitude of waiver petitions," but he reminded cable operators "this rule does not apply to the legacy boxes already deployed." Martin said, "Small cable operators may need more time to have their orders filled."

Martin urged the cable industry to "understand that I am approaching these issues with the same regulatory philosophy that has guided me thus far. I will examine the current competitive landscape and ask what Commission action is necessary to ensure that a level playing field exists to foster market entry," he said.

The following morning, NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow, in his remarks to introduce Roberts' "wideband demonstration," challenged Martin's comments.

"When the government encourages growth and regulates with a light touch, consumers win," McSlarrow said, acknowledging that competitive polices have allowed telephone companies to break into video service.

"It is puzzling that Chairman Martin does not take the same approach to [an] open marketplace," McSlarrow concluded.

(Gary Arlen, Special to TV Technology)