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Technology

PLATFORM DANCE

6/17/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

San Antonio — From the busy show floor to packed problem-solving workshop sessions to the exhortations of top executives, the cable platform was as hot as the weather last week in San Antonio, where those executives gathered.

The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers Cable-Tec Expo, which drew 10,000, gives system-level and middle corporate-level engineers a chance to peek at and probe new technology, compare notes with colleagues and hear from senior executives about cable's future.

Glenn Britt, Time Warner Cable's chairman and CEO, set the tone at the June 15 opening session. Despite the onslaught of competition, he said, the industry's strong underlying platform creates enormous opportunity.

“The platform is enormously capable,” he said. “I feel very good about our competitive prospects.”

On a subsequent panel of chief technology officers, Liberty Media Corp. CTO Tony Werner said cable will be able to deliver anything the regional Bell operating companies can over IPTV or fiber-to-the-home platforms.

The Internet-protocol platform — a current buzzword — isn't reserved for telcos, speakers said. Cisco Systems Inc. chairman and CEO John Chambers said the IP infrastructure that cable is building offers a lot of flexibility.

“You will have a convergence of lot of devices,” he said. The question, he added, “is how we lay services on top of them.”

For instance, cell phone calls can be switched to the broadband connection within the home, he said. Britt said the cable industry was looking at that option for its broadband plant.

WIRELESS IN SIGHTS

Cable operators are looking at how they might enter the wireless-broadband business, through joint ventures or by buying spectrum on their own and developing services, he said.

The Time Warner Cable chief said he didn't fear telco competition. “You can't be fearful. The world is full of opportunities. If we keep innovating, the opportunities are limitless.”

Time Warner is not inclined to match the telcos' digital subscriber line price reductions, Britt repeated. Rather, the MSO will add services and features to make high-speed data more valuable.

With DVRs, VOD and the HSD business, cable has a lot of upside, he said.

“We're also entering the voice business,” he said. “We don't have to have the whole thing. I think we're going to do quite well.”

Britt said it troubled him that people look at the telco-cable battles “as a battle to the death.”

“I don't see it that way,” he said. “There is plenty of business for everyone to go around.”

Britt repeated that cable isn't on the verge of running out of spectrum. The MSO plans to rollout switched broadcast video next year, he said, providing more bandwidth. The eventual reclamation of analog video channels will reclaim even more space, he said.

Cable has a great opportunity to build bridges with wireless networks, allowing for wireless-call handoffs in the home via cable's broadband plant, said Chambers. He noted that his two adult children do not have landline phones, but do have to walk around their homes to sometimes get a solid cellular signal, a problem cable could fix.

“Younger people will focus on mobility,” he said. “Mobile devices will be able to roll over to a broadband connection.”

He said operators should focus on services, because transport could well become a commodity in future years.

Britt seconded that notion. “The key for us is to not become a commodity. We're not going to match $14.95 (a DSL intro offer),” he said. “We want features and service they don't have. That's a more interesting environment for consumers and a better business environment.”

Werner said Liberty — which owns cable systems in Europe (through UnitedGlobalCom Inc.), Japan (Jupiter Communications Ltd.) and Puerto Rico — faces various telco competitive platforms worldwide.

“ADSL [asynchronous digital subscriber line] Plus does work at 15 Mb at 3,000 feet,” he said. “They can get reasonable speeds. The competition is real.”

But cable can deliver any service that the telcos can over IP, Werner said. The same is true with FTTH, he said.

“If money is no object, FTTH is an advanced medium,” he said. “[But] FTTH is very expensive.”

Swisscom's recent delays in rolling out IPTV because of problems with Microsoft Corp. software is among one of several issues seen by many in cable as good news. But Werner said other software companies, like Myrio Corp., have IPTV software solutions, so cable shouldn't rely too much on a glitchy delay.

“It might be delayed, but someone will get it right,” said Werner.

Werner said he's heard that Swisscom hasn't been able to get throughput past 2 Mbps to 2.5 Mbps — speeds which are insufficient to deliver multiple video signals.

Werner was optimistic about packet bonding, which will allow operators to stick four 6-MHz channels together and deliver 100 MHz to the home.

“Asia has become the speed king,” he said. Consumers there can get 40 Mbps to 50 Mbps of throughput for $25 a month.

Although the use of that much bandwidth is open to question, “it's really starting to become a war,” Werner said.

Speed is used as a marketing tool, he said. “We [have] 30 Megabits and even 100 Megabits in some apartments. Speed is a marketing advantage. Just the word sells.”

WERNER: WE MIGHT 'SIP'

Werner said Liberty uses both constant bit rate and IP technology to deliver phone services to its subscribers. It's also looking at session-initiated protocol (SIP) technology.

“SIP isn't as mature and is a bit more complicated,” he said. “There are some growing pains, but it's fairly stable now.”

Liberty is interested in SIP for rolling out unified messaging, voice mail wrapped into e-mail or to offer portals that let consumers control call forwarding.

Wireless and wireless extensions are also on Werner's radar. In some of Liberty's international markets, half of a building's phone traffic may be cellular.

Cable has the opportunity to make a deal with a wireless company, take that traffic off the cellular network and provide better coverage for the consumer.

About one-third of consumers aged 18 to 24 have no landline phone, he added.

Time Warner Cable senior vice president of advanced engineering and subscriber technology Mike Hayashi said he'd like to see the cable industry move to a common national platform that would allow MSOs to roll out services, like the OpenCable Applications Platform.

MSOs would still be able to keep their own look and feel with guides, etc., but a national technical footprint would allow cable to compete with the nationwide footprint of direct-broacast satellite, he said.

September