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Cable Operators

How Does Wireless Fit Into Cable’s Plans?

11/07/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Want to see what an organized competitive assault from a phone company looks like, in action?

Look north.

What U.S. cable operators dread, Canadian operators are living. The opponent: Bell Canada, which offers video (satellite), voice (duh), broadband Internet, and a fourth ingredient: wireless.

Wireless. The untethered wonder that could lift cable’s triple play to quadruple play.

This column will attempt to translate where wireless fits into the services offered over cable wires today. Along the way, it will identify what work is happening where within the cable technology community.

MOBILE AND PORTABLE

A duo of seemingly synonymous words travels closely with wireless: portability and mobility. We’ll start there.

In an applied sense, “portable” means you can dump something into something else, take both with you, and use them later. Like MP-3 players.

The consumer electronics community is already out with handheld gadgets, which plug into a PC or media center, accept fat video downloads, and get stuffed into the bag for later viewing.

Mobility means it’s portable and keeps working, in a “connected” sense, while you’re moving. Like if (or when) a Blackberry could do real-time video. (This is why one shouldn’t discount the wireless incumbents — the cellular guys — from being contenders in a “converged” world, where services blend over from one silo to the next.)

In general, portable gear isn’t always mobile, but mobile gear is almost always portable.

CABLE’S WIRELESS PLAY(S)

To suppose how wireless fits into today’s cable-delivered service silos, imagine a system with upgraded plant, delivering a triple-play bundle: analog, digital video and its on-demand accoutrements; broadband Internet; and voice.

Wireless broadband is probably the easiest to conjure. If you surf without wires in your house, or if you’ve ever used a Wi-Fi “hot spot,” you know this one. In the lingo, these in-home or commercial hot spots are known as “fixed wireless.” You get bits when you’re in range of the wireless bit spigot. Move out of range, no bits.

In the imaginary system, then, with its eye on cross-silo wireless services, one approach is to offer wireless home networking. Many MSOs already do, catering to people who just don’t want to deal with set-up and maintenance.

Then there’s voice. Cellular phone service is ubiquitous outside the home. More people use cordless phones than corded phones inside the home. For the hypothetical operator getting into voice-over-IP and wondering about how to blend wireless into that scene — what’s the play?

Wireless voice is a bit of a tricky proposition for a cable provider, short of partnering with a cellular provider. (And the number of cellular carriers not owned by competitive telcos is getting fairly small: T-Mobile, Nextel Communications Inc., Sprint Corp.)

One idea floating around is to rig a VoIP device with a wireless (Wi-Fi) antenna. Specifically, the item for rigging is the MTA (multimedia terminal adaptor), the thing that links phones to cable’s voice infrastructure. So outfitted, the MTA would be able to do whole-home broadband and voice, with or without wires.

But the phone still wouldn’t work outside the house — unless arrangements are struck with wireless carriers to essentially “haul their load” when a customer is inside the house.

What’s that mean to the everyday person? Say you’re on your phone, at home. (Note: It’s a special phone — a “combo” phone — a cell phone that’s Wi-Fi-enabled. And yes, they’re available.)

You’re late. You gather your staff and head to your car. Inside, you’ve been talking over a wireless link to your cable provider’s VoIP infrastructure. Somewhere between the garage and the end of the driveway, you shift over to the cellular network. To you, and the person on the other end, it’s a seamless handoff.

Quality-wise, when you hop from the cellular grid onto the wireless IP network in the house, your conversation sounds as good as it sounds on your wired phone, proponents say. The person you’re talking to sounds like the person you’re talking to, not like the teacher in the old Peanuts cartoons.

In tech circles, by the way, this whole notion goes by “roam to home.” Most of the work is happening within the PacketCable Multimedia umbrella, at Cable Television Laboratories Inc. Service definitions are currently being hammered out. That means it’s fairly early stage, deployment-wise.

PORTABLE VIDEO

And what about video? For this TiVo junkie, who travels a lot, portable video sounds great. Slide those favored episodes — too many to list, at this point — off the hard drive and into something small with a good screen and an even better battery. (Don’t get me started on charging cradles.)

Video is the hardest of the services to go portable or mobile, for an assortment of reasons. On the portability front, there’s the issue of copyright protection, which leads right to the door of digital rights management.

One cable scenario is to wall off a sort of “trusted place,” deemed safe by copyright holders. That involves the connectors and electronic “wrappers” on set-top boxes. It’s all about authenticating the portable device and securing the content as it moves over the connector.

Multiroom digital video recorders, which rely on wires today, are easy enough to imagine without the wires. That’s probably step one. Plugging CE devices into that trusted place for downloads is a plausible step two. Ditto for the wireless angle.

WHAT TO DO?

The hard part about blending wireless into cable’s service silos is the anticipating and the configuring. On the device side, the matrix of possibilities suddenly swells to include portable, mobile, wired, and wireless devices that may show up in somebody’s home, thirsty for content.

On the services side, the scenario mix includes those possible devices, as well as the range of data, video and voice services that may want connectivity.

Of course, there’s always the option of doing nothing without wires, but it gets riskier every day. Just ask Canada.

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