Virtue, Vice & Everything Nice

Walking the floor of NCTA's The Cable Show is always a wild and wacky experience. Is there another convention where can you find infrastructure giants like Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) down the aisle from both porn peddler Hustler TV and Eternal World Television Networks (EWTN), the global Catholic network? Virtue, vice, and everything nice.

Speaking of Cisco, the final results of an intense marketing strategy debate were on display at The Mandalay Bay Convention center. Scientific Atlanta , a Cisco company, has always maintained a conservative suit-and-tie dress code for The Cable Show. Cisco, on the other hand, has always gone tech casual, sporting those catchy corporate logo shirts. The suits at SA won the fight as the dress code at this booth was buttoned-down broadband.

While Cisco marketers lost with the logo shirts, they won on set-top branding. New SA Explorer set-top boxes on display, like the 4550HDC and 8550HDC, were wearing the Cisco logo. Finally, the networking giant is grabbing its piece of the home entertainment center.

In anticipation of the July Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deadline for separable set-top security, Cisco/SA was showing boxes outfitted with CableCARDs that it is preparing to ship en masse. It will be a summer of discontent for MSOs as they start paying more for such set-tops. Vendors like SA say the cost difference for including CableCARDs can be as much as $50 per box. How much of that amount MSOs will actually pay remains to be seen.

Cisco was also showing off Internet streaming enhancements to its Content Delivery System (CDS), including user-generated content from Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) Video delivered as cable video-on-demand (VOD) fare. The idea: rather than YouTube Inc. and the like eating up Docsis capacity, they are distributed as digital cable TV channels. Cisco also showed its switched digital video (SDV) solution, which it says is now deployed in nine markets by MSOs.

On the Docsis 3.0 front, Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) showed an early rendition of a 16-port downstream card for its C4 cable modem termination system (CMTS), and shared plans to offer software upgrades for its existing 2x12 cards for upstream 3.0 compliance.

Combining the cards, a single C4 chassis will simultaneously support more than 200 downstream and two dozen upstream channels for 3.0.

Speaking of big iron, martial artists the Pumphrey brothers attracted an audience at the Fox booth. Craig Pumphrey, who holds the world record for most tightly rolling up a metal frying pan like a newspaper, demonstrated this special skill. His bro' Paul successfully smashed cement slabs with his bare forearms, always a crowd pleaser.

So were a pair of 103-inch plasma high-definition TVs at the Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK) booth, wowing viewers with super-sharp footage from Discovery HD Theater. Many a cabler walked away with a severe case of screen envy.

ArtStreams demoed an alternate use for flat screen HDTVs -- transforming them into virtual paintings. Nothing like the idea of buying fine art from your local cable company.

Far tougher than the Pumphrey brothers are Gary Lauder and the team at ICTV Inc. . Founded in 1990, the company has fought long and hard for cable industry wins.

After several reincarnations, ICTV may finally be ready to strike pay dirt with ActiveVideo, a solution that fuses Web media with MPEG video delivery enabling programmers to create enhanced TV content, including interactive advertisements. Top MSO brass was by the booth to test drive the solution.

At its booth, BigBand Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: BBND) demoed an open SDV architecture, as well as IPTV over Docsis. Fresh off its initial public offering, the company also unveiled a new look, dropping the infamous fuzzy orange ball from its logo, and shifting from complementary black to blue. Unlike Cisco SA, BigBand execs were allowed to wear the company logo on their chests.

— Michael Harris, Chief Analyst, Cable Digital News

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