Cable Operators

Partners Step Up Their Game To Keep Pace With Operator

9/22/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

When it comes to Comcast Corp.’s overall influence on cable technology, size really does matter.

Not only has the operator extended its influence to shape up-and-coming technologies such as Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0 and the evolution toward all-digital video services, but by its sheer size it influenced the direction vendors have taken with cable gear, ranging from cable-modem termination systems to digital set-top boxes.

Comcast has rolled out HD DVR's such as Motorola's DCT 6412

In recent years, Comcast has adopted a novel approach to organizing its engineering staff, said Paul Bosco, vice president of cable and video initiatives at Cisco Systems Inc. Under the leadership of chief technology officer Dave Fellows and president and chief operating officer Steve Burke, the company has worked to align its network infrastructure under a single, unified system and has taken similar steps on its management side. Bosco noted a good example is Comcast executive vice president of national engineering and technology operations John Schanz — he’s in charge of all services that reach the customer, from video and voice to data.

“It’s a whole different feel for a cable company,” Bosco said. “Those two — the organizational and people pieces — have had a profound effect on our interaction with Comcast the company, and Comcast the industry leader.”

Comcast has contributed greatly to the technical efforts at industry technology consortium CableLabs Inc. Comcast engineers are on all of CableLabs’ certification boards overseeing testing and approval for gear including cable modems, set-top boxes and CMTSs.

“It starts at the top. Dave Fellows is chair of our Technical Advisory Committee, and he’s provided a lot of leadership there, as well as many of the technical people at Comcast that are involved in all of our projects,” said CableLabs chief technology officer Ralph Brown.

Case in point: the development energy Comcast brought to bear on DOCSIS 3.0, which establishes a way to bond data channels and boost throughputs well north of 100 Megabits per second.

“As they look to expand the throughput of their Internet Protocol networks for voice and data, they have been working very closely with Motorola to develop channel bonding,” said Rob McLaughlin, Motorola Inc. corporate vice president of North American sales. “That’s going to create an environment [that makes] their voice and data solutions more competitive in the marketplace.”

Also within DOCSIS 3.0, Comcast pressed for the addition of IPv6 — an upgrade to the Internet Protocol that powers all Internet systems. IPv6 is important to Comcast because it will greatly increase the number of available IP addresses to assign to devices. “On IPv6 they’ve really had a leadership role,” Brown said.


High on High Definition

Comcast's decision to introduce digital video recorder service in 2004 with only high-definition DVR's prompted an industrywide about-face, with HD DVR's gaining the dominant position in terms of deployments

Among technology segments, Comcast is well known for the energy it has put behind moving cable systems to an all-digital format, a project long championed by Fellows. The operator is one of the biggest buyers of Motorola’s DCT 700 all-digital set-top box.

“Comcast is the first to really ubiquitously drive all digital deployments of video in the marketplace and has been working very closely with Motorola in driving our platforms toward all-digital,” he said.

The work extends beyond just providing a low-cost DCT 700 set-top box. It has allowed Motorola to add additional features to its advanced set-top boxes that include tapping into IP connections via the existing coaxial TV. On that front, Comcast has been a major backer of the Multimedia over Coax Alliance networking technology that funnels IP Ethernet data over coaxial lines, McLaughlin said.

The Next Generation Network Architecture that Comcast and fellow operators Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications Inc. have been working on has also been a major point of influence, Bosco said. That includes the Next Generation On Demand, a Comcast-developed scheme that sets uniform guidelines for how to knit together on-demand systems that may eventually be adopted industry wide.

Comcast’s choice of gear also has influenced the direction of new products, and a good example is digital video recorders. According to Leichtman Research president Bruce Leichtman, Comcast’s decision to go with a combination high-definition and DVR box offering “has completely changed the DVR market.”

Specifically, Comcast’s use of HD DVRs like the Motorola DCT 6412 has attracted higher-income subscribers. Leichtman’s research found that after Comcast started marketing its HD DVR, the average income of its DVR households in the past year has risen.

“DVR becomes the tail of HD — and HD has the higher income,” he said. “So that strategy of pushing the HD DVR into the home changes the positioning as much for DVR as anything.”

The fact that Comcast has hit the accelerator on new services has required technology partners such as Cisco to step up their game to keep pace, Bosco said.

“For us, architecturally, how do we enable their success through combinations of technologies from within Cisco, and from within third-party partners, that we deliver on a more integrated basis to help them get into market faster, to create platforms that are extensible and allow them to launch many services in a more integrated way or shorter and shorter time cycles?” Bosco said.

Comcast’s clout in dealing with the vendor community starts with their strong negotiating stance, but in recent years it also has expanded to include more demanding requirements for systems and hardware, Bosco said. That reflects Comcast’s evolution into a more-sophisticated technology outfit in recent years.

Comcast is “obviously an extraordinary negotiator … and I would argue a stronger technology player in this new and emerging space,” Bosco said. “But I actually feel that the dominant pressure top-down that we feel is how do they achieve their strategic vision on a more aggressive schedule, in a world where more and more feature integrations are important to them?”

The company’s financial power also is influencing the technology space with its Comcast Interactive Capital investment arm. The subsidiary has funded mesh Wi-Fi provider BelAir Networks, multimedia-over-coax player Entropic Communications, and on-demand applications developer Extend Technologies among others.

“You get a feeling for where they are heading,” Bosco said.

September