Cable's Sweet on Switched Digital

DENVER – Cable-Tec Expo – Sure, IPTV may be getting reams of press. But many top cable engineers here insist that switched digital video will trump IPTV's benefits because it's built to take advantage of cable's hybrid fiber coax (HFC) networks, which have lots of bandwidth to spare compared to older copper-fed access lines.

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."

Get the whole story at Cable Digital News.

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

opticalwatcher 12/5/2012 | 3:50:48 AM
re: Cable's Sweet on Switched Digital OCAP Set Tops
Plus: You can put a cable receiver anywhere including inside the HDTV itself. Anyone could build one and many will, so costs will plummet.
Cable companies cost per customer goes down.
Panasonic, Samsung, etc are no doubt in favor of this approach.

Minus: Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola will lose their monopoly, which probably means they will cease to exist in the market. Cable companies lose leasing income. More importantly, they lose control of the box, which brings me to:

Do cable companies really want this open system? It is an interesting justaposition of two articles in one: the OCAP and the switched digital. If cable companies really want to go to switched digital, then OCAP will cease to work. You need a proprietary box again.

If you are a monopoly, you want control. The old telco's owned the phone. If you are a consumer you want choice.

The ultimate media system is open and serves as your IPTV, stereo, movie and music storage, and entertainment from the internet. Despite Microsoft's partial misfires like Windows Media Center, I think this is the direction people want to go. If this system could also receive all cable channels (maybe even handle the digital switching), then cable would look a lot better for consumers.

Sounds good, but we'll see if they remain enlightened or go back to a monopoly box like everyone else (except over the air).

Michael Harris 12/5/2012 | 3:50:40 AM
re: Cable's Sweet on Switched Digital OCAP is a middleware specification that creates an open application environment for interactive TV. The unbundling of conditional access, through CableCARD or a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS), is what really opens the cable set-top space to competitors. The MSOs are supporting this only to comply with a FCC mandate.

If history is a guide, Moto and S-A will continue to do quite well after things open up, though. In the DOCSIS cable modem and PacketCable E-MTA market --- both based on open standards -- the top cable vendors (Moto, S-A and ARRIS) still control over 70% of the market, i.e. they win most of the MSOs' direct purchase business.

MSOs like open standards, because it prevents vendor lock-in and enables a retail play. And when retail works, the consumer buys the box, reducing MSO capex. But, even though the MSO has created an "open market" they still choose to buy from their good ol' suppliers.
opticalwatcher 12/5/2012 | 3:50:39 AM
re: Cable's Sweet on Switched Digital I admit to being a novice in this area. I only mention what I've heard other more knoweldgeable people say, so I may not

The complaint I've heard people give about CableCARD is precisely that it doesn't offer interactive applications.

In the end, if a user can buy a box from Samsung that can do everything that the MSO's box can do plus a lot more and is cheaper, then it doesn't matter what box the MSO is offering.

The big IF is if the MSO can really get it all to work without glitches (or even if they want to). If not, then people will continue leasing the MSOs box.
Michael Harris 12/5/2012 | 3:50:37 AM
re: Cable's Sweet on Switched Digital You're right about CableCARD. Today's version is one-way, with no support for interactivity. The next version will be two-way interactive. But, the key in either case is that CableCARD unbundles conditional access security, which has historically been integrated into the box, giving incumbent set-top vendors a lock on the market.
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