A Cable Show '09 Preview
With show organizers anticipating a 20 percent drop in attendance at this week's Cable Show in Washington, expect the tough economy, and how the cable industry is dealing with it, to permeate many of the discussions.
But the rotten market won't be the only big topic when the show gets off the ground on Wednesday morning. Here's a snapshot of technology topics and trends that will be sharing cable's biggest stage this year.
'Cord-cutting' and cable's path to IPTV
Although some say "cord-cutting," a trend in which consumers do away with their traditional video subscriptions in favor of a broadband-only approach, is merely a myth at this point (and driven in part by the bad economy, by the way), it's fair to say that the damaging potential it represents to existing business models has at least grabbed the cable industry's attention and spurred it into action. (See 'Cord-Cutting' No Threat and Viacom Sees No Cord-Cutting.)
For some big MSOs such as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), the first preventive step will involve complementing TV-based video subscriptions with a service that authorizes customers to access content via the Web. (See Cable Web TV: Results May Vary .)
Some of the content-centric panels should shed more light on those near-term plans this week, but the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) tech-heavy panels on Friday should offer us a clear glimpse at how some of the industry's top engineers are envisioning how cable will migrate everything to IP.
The question, of course, is not if, but when that will happen, and how.
But don't expect them to say QAM is going the way of the Dodo anytime soon. QAM- and IP-based video services will likely share cable's video limelight for many years to come.
Like last year, vendors, MSOs and show organizers will once again turn the spotlight on tru2way, a common headend and set-top software platform that (someday) promises to open up the retail market for interactive, cable-ready digital boxes and TVs.
Don't expect to hear a great deal about deployment plans this week, though. That big news was revealed last year when five of the top six "incumbent" U.S. MSOs agreed to get all their cable headends ready for tru2way by July 1, 2009, as part of the binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) negotiated with Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE). Bankrupt Charter Communications Inc. has another year to complete the job. (See Charter Turns to Chapter 11.)
Those MSOs have also pledged to include the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), the middleware component of tru2way, in 20 percent of new set-tops they purchase after July 1. (See Revealed: The Tru2way MOU.)
Instead, expect much of the focus at this year's show to center on vendor partnerships, and demonstrations of tru2way-based services and applications, including a new range of navigation systems and guides that comply with the budding "open" platform.
And we expect some traditional set-top makers, including Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), to unveil some new tru2way gear at this show. EchoStar Corp. LLC (Nasdaq: SATS), the cable newcomer, has already unveiled its first tru2way–based device, which, not surprisingly, incorporates "time-shifting" tech from corporate cousin Sling Media Inc. (See EchoStar Slings Its First Tru2way Set-Top.)
It will likely be several more months before most big MSOs turn up tru2way services in a meaningful way. In the meantime, Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), a platform that enables relatively simple applications to run on cable's entire spectrum of cable boxes, will rule much of cable's early foray into interactive television. And on the floor this year, you won't be able to swing a cat without hitting a vendor that's showing off its latest and greatest EBIF wares.
Based on the initial flow of EBIF-related news so far, we don't expect to see much in terms of specific MSO deployment activity, but rather, plenty of signs that the technology is maturing. That means oodles of vendor integration and licensing deals and gobs of EBIF application demos.
Those applications will range from polling and voting capabilities that are "bound" to live programs, to a few "unbound" tools that are content-independent, such as personalized "widgets" (news, weather, information), TV-based caller ID, and a few simple games.
Another EBIF capability like to be highly visible this year is interactive advertising, particularly applications that enable consumers to request more information about an advertised product or even play a long-form advertisement that's streamed from the cable operator's VoD system.
Which leads us to our next hot topic…
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