Cable's Long Path to IPTV Nirvana
As David Grubb, the CTO of Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)'s home business unit sees it, cable's migration to IP video will look a lot like its journey from analog TV to digital TV. That means it won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight.
In fact, cable's digital migration is still going on after more than 10 years. Most operators that claim to be all-digital got there by simulcasting all programming in the digital domain. But after reclaiming analog spectrum to apply toward video-on-demand, HDTV, and Docsis 3.0, many MSOs still offer a lifeline analog video tier, and that scenario may not change for many years to come.
Getting to this point took many years… and many steps. And Grubb thinks cable will go through a similarly step-laden process during its inexorable migration to IP video. Don't expect cable to go all U-verse with a quick flip of the switch.
"It [cable's digital transition] took many years, and we're really at the trailing edge of analog," Grubb tells Light Reading Cable.
In Grubb's estimation, cable can achieve IP video Nirvana in three key steps:
- Start with altering the user experience and TV interface by shifting to a Web-based architecture that allows for more rapid changes and innovation.
- Move IP video into the home network with multiroom DVRs that can speak the high-speed languages of Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) , WiFi, and possibly other platforms.
- Then comes the hard(er) part -- putting all cable services onto a common IP access network.
Grubb adds that cable should not rev up IP video just for the sake of doing it, by essentially replicating today's digital TV services on a new platform. "The move to IP is not just a slightly different way to enhance your digital offering," he says. "It really should be considered a new platform, just the way digital was considered a new platform." (See Video's 'Third Wave'.)
Breaking down the steps
That's why Grubb isn't exactly enamored with the idea of cable operators simulcasting all of their video services in IP right away. "It's a lot of work to deliver basically what the consumer is already getting today at a very high quality," he says.
Instead, he advocates that cable focus first on making the set-top navigation system more personalized and engaging, and just more Web-like. That includes better ways to navigate ever-growing video-on-demand (VoD) libraries and perhaps the addition of Internet-delivered content.
The second step, bridging IP video the home network, is also underway, though cable's still in the early stages of deployments. In fact, some are just starting to get off the ground this year. (See Comcast Launches Multi-Room DVR and Mediacom Rolls Whole-Home DVR.)
Grubb believes putting IPTV in the cable access network will be the most complex of the steps and will take the most time to complete, since MSOs already have millions of digital boxes in the field that can't speak a lick of IP, and massive legacy networks to feed them.
With that in mind, Grubb says hybrid cable boxes that can handle QAM (the old way) and IP will play a big role in the transition. "You'll get to a certain point when you're simulating everything [and] you start shipping IP-only boxes. Then, over time, operators can start to taper off the digital tiers, just like analog is being tapered off today."
Grubb suggests that at least a 16-channel downstream is needed for operators to start thinking about launching large tiers of IP video. (Most top-of-the-line Docsis 3.0 modems and gateways can bond eight downstream channels.)
Timing is everything
How rapidly cable takes each step will vary by the MSO, but Grubb believes operators will start to deliver IP video services to set-top boxes within the next couple of years. (Delivery to secondary devices such as iPads will, of course, start sooner than that.) (See Cablevision to Deliver Live TV & VoD to iPad.)
But when will cable use IP as its primary delivery mechanism for video to the home? Don't hold your breath. Grubb guesses it won't happen for five to seven years, citing cable's massive digital legacy and the work that's required to shift all linear and on-demand content so it can be delivered to IP boxes and a new, underlying, video-optimized IP access network.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable