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Cable Execs: Duds & Suds

LAS VEGAS -- The Cable Show '07 -- In a session earlier this week here at The Cable Show, key cable marketing and engineering execs offered varied opinions on hot trends, as well as cable's recent duds.

The most intriguing trend for Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) chief technology officer Tony Werner is the convergence of the Internet with communications, particularly as more video is delivered over the Internet and to the TV screen. That, he said, "is going to be one of the more defining things we'll see in the next four to five years."

One thing to keep an eye on here is Comcast's work with a line of Residential Network Gateway (RNG) boxes that will contain special set-top chipsets capable of bonding up to three RF downstream channels. (See Broadcom Intros Cable Chip.)

Supporting consumers hooked into user-generated content is on the agenda at Bright House Networks , according to Nomi Bergman, the MSO's executive vice president of strategy and development. She said Bright House is gearing up to launch You On Demand, a service that will accept video clips from customers and make them available for sharing with the local community via the operator's VOD system. Comcast, among similar examples, has already launched a similar product in concert with corporate cousin Ziddio Inc.

Marwan Fawaz, executive vice president and CTO of Charter Communications Inc. , pointed to cable's "plumbing" and the flexibility of the hybrid/fiber coax (HFC) network -- a passion of his that is not as apparent to consumers. Others on his list: commercial services, interactive advertising, and the apps that someday will hook into the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP). (See MSOs Say OCAP's Not a Snap.)

Panelists also pored over some cable "duds," but acknowledged that the timing, rather than the virtues of the service or app, was usually the big factor.

Fawaz pointed to Charter's initial work with "interactive channels" that offered some limited access to weather, traffic, and sports information. "I can talk about this because I wasn't there," when it was launched, he quipped.

He didn't name names, but he was likely referring to an app from Wink Communications, a company OpenTV Corp. (Nasdaq: OPTV) picked up in 2002.

In addition to Wink's unattractive graphics and limited interactivity, it was quickly clear that the app had no long-term value after Charter scuttled it last year and took it away from about 1 million customers.

"No one noticed," Fawaz said.

On the role of timing, Werner noted that cable telephony was considered a dud in 1998. But it's taking off now thanks to IP and service bundling, he said. (See Comcast Banks on Triple Play.)

That's evidence that a dud might reignite eventually, once timing and technology align. "Even interactive TV will be huge at some point," Werner said.

And the surprise hits? For Bright House's Bergman, a "small" hit is Caller ID via the TV, despite some beliefs that consumers might find such an app intrusive when messages splash on their TV screen.

Sam Howe, the chief marketing officer of Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), said the MSO's decision to charge for voice mail was a surprise, providing a revenue boost for TWC's unlimited calling plans.

Howe also shed some light on TWC's pricing plans for a local-only phone service, first revealed last week during the operator's quarterly earnings call. (See TWC Grows Its RGU.)

He said the operator expects the offer to come in at about $25. "It's not a huge market," he said of the coming service. Time Warner, Howe added, is also looking to offer an international VOIP package, "with a sense of unlimitedness."

Canadian cable MSO Rogers Communications Inc. (NYSE: RG; Toronto: RCI), meanwhile, is starting to push the needle with Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC), but starting with basic voice service, according to Michael Lee, chief strategy officer of Rogers.

Rogers, which happens to be in the enviable position of owning cable plant and a cellular service, is revving up for trials that will enable the same handset to handoff calls seamlessly between the wireless system in the customer home and the cellular network outside of it.

Separately, "a big initiative for us" in 2008 will be the deployment of WiMax, Lee said. That Inukshuk Internet Inc. network, being deployed in partnership with BCE Inc. (Bell Canada) (NYSE/Toronto: BCE), is about 60 percent complete, offering up to 3 Mbit/s.

Lee said the WiMax strategy will serve as a "pure complement" to Rogers's regular cable broadband service.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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