How Will Cable Deliver IPTV?
To use their networks to provide IPTV, cable MSOs can: 1) deliver IPTV directly through the cable modem termination system (CMTS); 2) bypass the CMTS and deliver video through edge QAMs; or 3) deploy a new class of gateways capable of encapsulating traditional QAM-based digital video and ensuring it can be understood by IP-based devices in the home. (See Bypassing the IPTV Hype and Cable IPTV Debate Brews )
Engineering execs from Cox Communications Inc. , Charter Communications Inc. , Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), and BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND) kicked around the pros and cons of each approach on a Multichannel News Webcast yesterday. Other than BigBand, a vendor favoring the bypass approach, the panelists weren't yet ready to bet all their chips on any one option. (See BigBand Lays Cable IPTV Groundwork.)
"There's a growing desire to get down to one network," said Louis Williamson, a senior engineering fellow at TWC.
That's one reason why Jay Rolls, Cox's SVP of technology architecture, is somewhat partial to the video-over-CMTS approach, which originates everything in IP from the get-go.
"It gives you some degree of nimbleness to hit other devices in the home," he said, noting that it would allow the MSO to take video "off-net," and send it, like a Slingbox, to customers that want to access video services when they're not connected to the operator's cable network.
Doug Jones, the chief cable architect at BigBand, replayed one of the economic arguments his company has made for the bypass approach: that the costs of edge QAMs greatly undercut the costs of core CMTS downstreams. [Ed note: Granted, it's taken cable about a dozen years to cost-reduce video QAMs to their present level. It probably won't take that long for them to do the same for a CMTS QAM.]
"I definitely see the appeal," Rolls said of the CMTS bypass economics.
Doug Ike, the VP of advanced video and applications engineering at Charter, said emerging "modular" CMTS designs, which physically separate the downstreams from the "brains" of the core CMTS, should make the video-over-CMTS economics more attractive.
"I think there needs to be a bit of an evolution in the CMTS platform to adapt to [IPTV]," Rolls said. But if the MSOs indicated they wanted to move in that direction rapidly, "I'm sure the CMTS community would respond," he added.
But can MSOs afford to wait for next-gen, video-optimized CMTS technology to show up? BigBand's Jones doesn't think so, noting that a CMTS bypass architecture can foist cable to the IPTV forefront today.
"Bypass technology certainly has its attractiveness in the near-term," Charter's Ike agreed.
But Rolls wondered if bypass represents merely an interim step of where cable wants to go, suggesting that it may behoove an MSO like Cox to hold off and then make the move to IP in one fell swoop.
TWC: Open to the gateway
The approach that could get MSOs closer to IPTV is a Docsis 3.0-capable, multi-tuner gateway/set-top that can speak the language of MPEG and IP video transport.
"We are looking at going down this path," Time Warner Cable's Williamson said. He didn't say how, but it's widely known that the MSO is pursuing such a device under the internal "Santa Monica" code name.
TWC is keen on the gateway because it leverages the MSO's existing networks and combines all of the signals into one device, allowing for multi-room DVRs and media sharing. "We think it will lower costs overall with homes that have multiple services... and multiple outlets," he said.
Others aren't so sure. Rolls suggested that such a device won't be had for cheap, and presents another potential bugaboo: If something goes wrong in that complex gateway, cable MSOs probably won't be able to avoid a $50 truck roll to fix it.
Rolls also questioned the device's ability to deliver video off-net. "It seems a little handicapped to me," he said.
Although this debate is far from solved, MSOs are already thinking about when they'll need to make these hard decisions. Rolls, for example, put it in the two-to-four year timeline. Ike said some trials using "interim technologies" should start showing up by 2010.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News
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