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PacketCable 2.0: Back on the Front Burner

Jeff Baumgartner
4/14/2009
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It's been a long cold spell for PacketCable 2.0, but U.S. cable's interest in the technology appears to be heating up again.

The key is that MSOs have access to a new breed of brainy customer endpoints based on an emerging CableLabs -specified architecture that supports Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and borrows heavily from the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS).

MSOs are expected to adopt PacketCable 2.0 to spruce up their residential and business voice services with IP-based applications, and to pave a path toward a fixed mobile convergence (FMC) platform that works across both wired and wireless access technologies.

Some MSOs are already deploying SIP-based voice services to business customers, but the certification of PacketCable 2.0 gear could help them expand those services to residential customers, says Susie Kim Riley, the founder and chief technical officer of Camiant Inc. , a maker of PacketCable-based policy servers.

"A lot of interoperability [work] has already been done," Riley says of the network elements that make up the PacketCable 2.0 architecture. "But the device certification is very important."

That critical element was thrust to the forefront this week when CableLabs announced its first certifications for PacketCable 2.0-based consumer gear, awarded to embedded digital voice adapters (E-DVAs) from Ubee Interactive and Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453). (See Vendors Post PacketCable 2.0 Firsts .)

An E-DVA includes a Docsis cable modem and a Residential SIP Telephony (RST) client. It's similar to an embedded multimedia terminal adapter (E-MTA) -- a voice modem that most MSOs use today to deliver VoIP services to residential subscribers and some small business customers. However, E-DVAs, thanks to on-board SIP firmware, are smarter and should let cable operators develop and deploy new applications more rapidly than they can today using E-MTAs and the PacketCable 1.x platform, which requires the network-based call agent to do most of the heavy lifting.

"PacketCable 2.0 brings the intelligence into the device itself," taking advantage of the IMS cores that some MSOs are developing, says Brian Koenig, Ubee's product line manager for voice services.

Back to life
While it may not be fair to say PacketCable 2.0 is back from the dead, certification of the first devices indicates that the architecture "is certainly out of suspended animation," says Heavy Reading senior analyst Alan Breznick. (See The Slow Road to PacketCable 2.0.)

"The need for a more advanced [VoIP] service might be the initial driver," he says. Cable VoIP subscription growth is slowing, and MSOs want to prevent customers from getting tempted by wireless-only services. (See Comcast Sub Growth Weakens in Q4 and Time Warner Cable Subs Growth Slows in Q4 .)

MSOs are also interested in enhancing basic VoIP services. Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), for example, is launching an "enhanced cordless phone" that ties messaging and access to some Web-based applications. (See Comcast Enhancing the Home Phone .)

So, what kinds of new applications are possible? In the near term, MSOs could use PacketCable 2.0 to deliver IP-based applications across different platforms. For example, they could bring VoIP to the set-top box to create TV-based caller ID services or even to let customers place calls directly from the box using a click-to-dial interface.

The MSOs "want an integrated platform they can control and manage effectively," says Derek Ferro, Ubee's director of corporate engineering services.

On the FMC side, PacketCable 2.0 could eventually enable a voice application to run on the same IMS core whether it's originating from the home phone or is handed over from a mobile handset. That handset could be 3G, WiFi, or even WiMax.

And while Femtocell technology is absent from the initial E-DVA designs, it could be built into PacketCable 2.0 endpoints of the future, Ubee's Koenig says. Comcast has already expressed significant interest in femtocell technology. (See Comcast Goes for WiMax Femtocells.)

MSOs haven't said much about their deployment plans involving PacketCable 2.0 and residential SIP-based voice services, but suppliers say many of the larger operators are interested in kicking off E-DVA field trials this year. Deployments are expected to ramp up in 2010 as MSOs begin to convert E-MTAs into E-DVAs through SIP firmware upgrades.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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