Cable's Sweet on Switched Digital
News Analysis Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading 6/22/2006
In several panel discussions and interviews here, cable engineers touted switched digital video as the industry's best way to carve out more bandwidth for new digital services. They especially see switched digital as the way for cable operators to pump up their HDTV offerings.
"I think cable operators are very well positioned," said Tom Buttermore, vice president and general manager of global cable solutions for Nortel Networks. "It boils down to physics. The fat pipe wins."
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Cable CTOs Say OCAP Set-Tops Are Coming By Alan Breznick DENVER – Cable-Tec Expo – Nearly five years after CableLabs wrote the first technical specifications for digital cable set-top boxes and TV sets that would enable them to run on any cable system, the cable industry is finally ready to start selling that gear.
Six of the nation's largest MSOs -- Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, Cablevision Systems, and Advance/Newhouse Communications -- are now upgrading their cable system headends to support digital TV gear equipped with the critical OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) middleware. They aim to deploy the OCAP software in at least a dozen markets, including such major metro areas as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Denver, and Indianapolis, by the end of the year.
Critics charge that the MSO deployment plans sound more like token offerings to appease federal regulators, who have been pressing the cable industry to support interoperable equipment that consumers can buy at retail stores. They contend that cable operators have been dragging their feet on the issue for years because they fear competition to their leased set-top business model.
Speaking at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' Cable-Tec Expo confab here, two top cable engineers insisted that the industry is now committed to making OCAP work. Despite a load of technical headaches, they said their companies are moving ahead with their rollout schedules.
David Fellows, executive vice president and CTO of Comcast, reiterated that MSO's intention to launch OCAP in an industry-leading four regions by the end of the year, including its Boston, Denver, northern New Jersey, and hometown Philadelphia markets. He said Comcast is working with Panasonic, from which the MSO ordered at least 250,000 OCAP-equipped set-tops with high-definition (HD) and digital video recording (DVR) capabilities earlier this year, on the rollout plans.
Marwan Fawaz, outgoing CTO of Adelphia Communications and incoming CTO of Charter Communications, confirmed Charter's goal to get two markets ready for OCAP gear by year-end. Although he declined to name the markets, he said one launch will occur on a cable system with Motorola plant and electronics equipment and the other on a cable system supported by Scientific-Atlanta gear.
"One manufacturer is more ready than the other," said Fawaz, declining to say which vendor is better prepared. "I lose sleep worrying about it."
At least one top consumer electronics engineer thinks cable operators urgently need OCAP-enabled equipment to compete against DirecTV and EchoStar, as well as such other national players as the big RBOCs.
"Without OCAP, the cable industry would be at a severe competitive disadvantage," said Paul Liao, CTO of Panasonic Corp. of North America. "From a competitive perspective, I don't see how you can't do OCAP as quickly as possible… If you don't have OCAP, it's going to be your competitors who do that."
Some TV programming suppliers say a wholehearted cable commitment to OCAP could make a big difference for them as well. With OCAP-enabled TV sets and set-tops, content suppliers and applications providers can write just one piece of software to run the same fare on most cable systems.
"OCAP does matter to us," saidVincent Roberts, executive vice president of worldwide technology and operations for Disney/ABC Television Group. "We deliver to multiple consumer devices. That's a real challenge for us."
A number of consumer electronics manufacturers want to see OCAP swiftly deployed, too. In fact, three large electronics makers -- Panasonic, LG Electronics, and Samsung Electronics -- have already committed to building the OpenCable two-way digital TV sets that would use the software.
"From Panasonic's perspective, OCAP is an absolutely critical and essential step," Liao says. "There's only one thing that will make it better-- get it deployed."
Ironically, the cable industry is moving to make its digital set-tops more retail-friendly for consumers at the same time that the more retail-oriented satellite TV industry is adopting the traditional cable model of leasing gear to customers.
For example, DirecTV carried out a major shift in its hardware strategy in March, instituting a new leasing program that pays commissions to dealers for renting, not selling, satellite converters to customers. In the past, DirecTV always subsidized the cost of set-top box sales to subscribers.
— Alan Breznick, Site Editor, Cable Digital News