Cable Tech

NCTA: Cable's IP Appreciation Party

ATLANTA -- NCTA National Show -- The influence of IPTV was apparent everywhere at NCTA this week. And this is a cable show, for gosh sakes!

Regardless of the wire or access method, this cable show is more an IP show than ever before. And here's a sampling of the hot tech topics we saw while trolling the halls here:

Switched Video
Perhaps the most talked about new technology at this year's show was Switched Digital Broadcast (SDB). Several vendors here, including BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND) and Scientific Atlanta (Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)), are demonstrating switched video equipment that allows operators to only deliver to the set-top channels that have been selected by viewers. Those channels not being watched are distributed only as far as the edge router until they are requested.

Traditionally, cable operators have broadcast all their channels down the coax, to the set-top, where they await selection by the viewer. But this requires a lot of bandwidth, especially for the analog and high definition channels. In fact, operators must reserve up to two thirds of the bandwidth in their plants just to deliver video.

That's becoming more and more painful to cable as pressure from the telcos increases, high definition television (HDTV) takes off, and consumer demand for more and more bandwidth accelerates. (See OpenTV Shows Off Middleware.)

Switched Digital Broadcast (SDB) is widely seen as cable's best long-term answer to the problem.

Scientific Atlanta's booth spokesman says operators like the idea of delivering a group of the 25 or 30 most-watched channels down to the set-top as usual, while leaving the rest of the channels up in the network until somebody requests one. The exec says the switching solution costs carriers $5-$10 per "home passed."

OpenTV Corp. (Nasdaq: OPTV) and C-COR Corp. (Nasdaq: CCBL) are also getting into the switched video game. Open TV contributes its middleware product, which runs on Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) set-top boxes. C-COR contributes its video session and resource manager, which it adapted from its VOD server management technology to handle switched video. (See BigBand Intros 4th-Gen Solution, SA Unveils Set-Tops, and OpenTV, C-COR Enter Switching.) Not that switched video is the only option. Another way of increasing the horsepower of cable plants is by widening their frequency spectrum from the usual 750 megahertz up past the one gigahertz mark. Overlay technology from the likes of Vyyo Inc. (Nasdaq: VYYO) does exactly that. Some people in the industry regard that option as a short term solution, however. (See Vyyo Funding Hints at Cable Customers and Vyyo Rebrands .)

Set-Top Boxes
Cable set-top boxes are also learning many of the tricks of their IPTV cousins. Scientific Atlanta, Motorola, and others are stocking their cable set-tops with hard drives, cable modems, and the ability to decode H.264 video streams.

The cable box of the future will likely do a lot more than video. Vendors are clearly moving toward a set-top box which acts as a central access point for VOIP, video, data, and wireless services. (See SA Unveils Set-Tops, OpenTV Shows Off Middleware, and Nagravision Certifies 1K Set-Tops.)

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