Cable Plots Its IP Video Path
TORONTO -- With the cable industry clearly headed toward an IP video future, the big question for cable engineers now is how to make that transition as smooth and easy as possible.
Speaking at the fourth annual Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Canadian Summit here this week, top engineering executives from Rogers Communications Inc. (Toronto: RCI), Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Bright House Networks agreed that they view IP video as the best way to deliver more advanced features and applications to subscribers, such as multi-screen services, interactive TV applications and converged services. In a wide-ranging session, they also said they see IP video as the way to reach the rapidly growing number of new IP-enabled devices, including smart TVs, game consoles, tablets and smartphones.
"Comcast is very bullish on IP," said Raymond Celona, senior vice president of national engineering and technical operations for Comcast Cable. Citing estimates that the average U.S. home will have six IP-enabled devices by 2015, he noted that Comcast has been testing its new IP-enabled service, now known as X1, in Augusta, Ga., and plans to roll it out later this year. (See Comcast IDs Cloud TV Product as 'X1' .)
All four MSO executives said their companies will likely end up deploying some type of IP video gateway in customer homes to serve all these broadband-enabled devices. These gateways will either attach directly to TV sets like current-day cable set-tops or sit in basements or utility closets, and distribute video signals around the home.
Video hybrid on the horizon
But none of the MSO officials expect the transformation to an all-IP home to occur quickly or neatly. Instead, most think that they will be sending legacy QAM video signals to households for some time to come, then using hybrid QAM/IP video gateways in the home to transcode the signals to IP video, at least partly because of the need to serve legacy TV sets that can't be easily upgraded or replaced.
"It’s inevitable," Celona said. "It is a hybrid world."
Along the same lines, the four MSO technologists don't see the traditional cable set-top box going away any time soon. Instead, they believe that digital set-tops will linger in homes for the rest of the decade, if not longer.
"The classic set-top will be around for a long time," said Dermot O’Carroll, senior vice president of access networks for Rogers. "There will be a [set-top] device in the home for a long, long time."
Jeff Chen, senior vice president of advanced technology at Bright House Networks, went even further than O'Carroll. "It's a necessary evil," he said of the set-top box. Chen noted that without cable set-tops, consumers would have to switch out their TVs every two or three years because of service and feature upgrades.
Questioned about their budding TV Everywhere ambitions, all four cable executives said their companies are technically ready to serve multiple video devices both inside and outside the home. The only thing stopping them from serving devices anywhere, they said, is that they lack the legal right to beam most programming beyond the home.
"That’s not a technical question," said Jim Ludington, executive vice president of Time Warner Cable, which has started serving tablets, smartphones and PCs inside the home and has been chomping at the bit to beam programming to devices outside the home as well. "It's a content question; it's a rights question."
IP video's magic number
Speaking after the panel, O'Carroll said cable operators will need anywhere from eight to 20 Docsis channels to transmit IP video programming to subscribers. He said the range depends upon their node and service group sizes and the extent of their fiber lines. O'Carroll said cable operators may also need another 12 or more Docsis channels to deliver data downstream speeds of 150Mbit/s or greater to subscriber homes.
Some cable engineering executives set the bar for IP video even higher. Speaking on a separate panel at the SCTE conference, John Ulm, a fellow on Motorola Mobility LLC 's technical staff, said cable operators will need 24 to 32 QAM channels (roughly 132MHz to 196MHz of capacity) just to place their entire video lineups on IP. Ulm recommended that cable operators start moving in the IP direction by installing specialized transcoding devices or hybrid QAM/IP video gateways in homes and serving the second and third screens in the home.
"The video gateway is part of the migration strategy," he said. "Ultimately, you want the transcoding to be done in the [cable] headend."
Other cable technologists agree. At a cable broadband strategies conference hosted by Light Reading Cable in Denver last week, for instance, former Charter Communications Inc. CTO Marwan Fawaz also estimated that cable operators will need to set aside 24 to 32 QAM channels to replicate their entire video lineups in IP and tack on such new services as network DVRs. (See MSOs Must Bust Out Bandwidth for IP Video Leap.)
In a keynote address, Fawaz, a founding principal of Sarepta Advisors, argued that a full IP simulcast would likely be the easiest transition path for cable operators. But he noted that this heavy bandwidth load could also be the costliest, making the approach a non-starter for some operators. He also noted that it would probably require MSOs to reclaim most, if not all, of their analog spectrum and recycle it for the IP simulcast.
But O'Carroll said the combined bandwidth load for IP video and broadband data may not be as great as many expect. He argued that cable operators may not have to set aside a dozen or more channels for both IP video and high broadband data speeds because customers would likely just use such high speeds to get video content on their own from over-the-top sources. So, he said, operators might be able to get away with lower downstream speeds (and fewer channels) if they start delivering IP video fare.
— Alan Breznick, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading