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Cable MSOs Seeing the IP Video Light

LOS ANGELES -- The Cable Show -- After holding IP video at arm's length for years, some of the nation's largest cable operators appear more eager than ever to embrace the technology.

It's unlikely that cable will ever "flash-cut" its video offerings to IP, but Tuesday afternoon's chief technology panel session here made it clear that many operators are starting to noodle potential migration strategies.

For Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), IP video will drive overall service convergence to help operators deliver services anywhere and to any device, according to Mike LaJoie, TWC's EVP and CTO. "It's really about converging all of our services over an IP pipe all the way to the home. It changes the game a lot."

TWC isn't admitting anything publicly, but the MSO is said to be gearing up an IP video trial here in Los Angeles using Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Mediaroom platform. LaJoie said he hadn't read the report, but added that "there's no love-fest going on" between TWC and Microsoft when asked about the purported IPTV trial arrangement. (See TWC Taps Microsoft Mediaroom for IPTV Test .)

Comcast EVP and CTO Tony Werner agreed about the allure of IP video, noting that the technology will help cable satisfy the growing demands of consumers as they purchase IP-enabled devices and use them to take care of their video needs. "The [Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)] iPad really crystallizes this for everybody. We need to have an easy way to get our content to them," he said.

Comcast hopes to do that in part using its fiber backbone and still-developing content distribution network (CDN).

Although operators of all sizes are interested in doing more than kicking the tires on IPTV, there are different schools of thought on how to do it. Some are looking at delivering video through the cable modem termination system (CMTS) as port costs drop, others are keen on CMTS "bypass" architectures that feed video through the edge QAMs, and yet others might lean on souped-up gateways that can manage new IP video services as well as cable's legacy RF-based offerings.

Comcast is believed to be pushing toward the CMTS approach, but "all of the above are still viable options," Werner said. However, he sees the "end goal" to involve video delivery through the CMTS, calling that approach "more eloquent and more efficient" than others currently on the table.

The historic downside of that approach is the relatively high cost of CMTS ports. Werner, however, says those are going down, and will reach parity with other approaches "soon." Comcast, by the way, is working on product specs for a new line of super dense access network boxes that could help it reach those desired performance and cost targets. (See Comcast Proposes Its God Box .)

TWC is considered to be partial to the gateway, but LaJoie said the MSO is still open to all options as well.

But Suddenlink Communications is starting to lock in on the gateway concept. Suddenlink SVP and CTO Terry Cordova said such a device would help the MSO deal with its legacy boxes and start to employ IP-based boxes and other video clients.

Canadian MSO and wireless service provider Rogers Communications Inc. (Toronto: RCI) hasn't made any firm decisions, either, but it does expect to migrate to IP so it can deliver video to mobile devices as well as the home, a strategy "which implies an IP-based CDN," said Dermot O'Carroll, Rogers' SVP of access networks.

Although MSOs may use different strategies to do IP video, all agree that it won't happen overnight. "It won't be a flash-cut," Cordova said. "It will be a transitional period."

"You'll see MPEG-2 transport boxes on our network for another 10 years," TWC's LaJoie predicted.

But operators are eager to leverage low-cost IPTV boxes and the other benefits of the technology. "We do need to embrace [IP video], " said Scott Hatfield, EVP and CTO of Cox Communications Inc. "The economics of IP are different."

Wideband updates
Panelists were also asked to provide an update on their Docsis 3.0 deployments and the status of work involving upstream channel bonding.

In terms of D3 network deployments, Suddenlink has it rolled out to 65 percent of its plant, and expects to end the year at 75 percent. Cox has about half of its plant wired up today, and anticipates having two thirds of it done by the year's end. TWC has about 20 percent of its footprint done, while Comcast is at about 83 percent. Rogers, meanwhile, has completed the network upgrade, and has services turned up in about 70 percent.

O'Carroll said upstream channel bonding "is one of our top priorities" as the MSO moves to 64 QAM technology and 6.4MHz-wide channels in the upstream. He said 64 QAM will allow Rogers to offer 30-Mbit/s speeds using Docsis 2.0, and will offer a "bridge" to upstream channel bonding in 2011.

Werner said Comcast has about 30 percent of its network on 64 QAM and is turning up 6.4MHz-wide channels in the upstream. In addition to lab work, Comcast has been running upstream channel bonding in two markets. (See Comcast: Upstream Bonding Tests Yield 'Sustained' 75 Mbit/s .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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