When Comcast CEO Brian Roberts takes the stage at the Internet & Television Expo (INTX, formerly The Cable Show) in Chicago this week, you can bet that every person in the room will be wondering how his speech might have differed if US regulators had approved the company's planned acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Now that the merger is off the table, the agenda for the rest of 2015 changes dramatically -- not only for Comcast and TWC, but for much of the cable industry.
Network investment priorities change. Product roadmaps face overhauls. Even vendor considerations have to shift in light of changing partnership agreements and a new/old view of which markets the different providers serve.
Yet, while specific company deployment plans are being revised or discarded, many industry-wide technology efforts are still pressing forward. Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) could still be sold to another suitor, and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) could still use its cash pile to pick up new assets, but DOCSIS 3.1, cable WiFi and a slew of other initiatives will all carry on.
When INTX opens its doors, here are some of the technologies to watch for. Many are moving forward quickly, and all will have a significant impact on Internet and TV service evolution through 2015 and beyond.
DOCSIS 3.1 -- (Unofficial) certifications now underway
Although not official, CableLabs has confirmed that certifications for DOCSIS 3.1 equipment are underway. The not official part means that vendors can't say their hardware is certified. But through a series of interop events, CableLabs is already testing cable modems and some headend functions in the same way that it will once the official DOCSIS 3.1 certification program starts.
The upshot of CableLabs' progress is that several companies at INTX are likely to be running live demonstrations of DOCSIS 3.1 gear. After showing off an OFDM-modulated DOCSIS signal (part of the DOCSIS 3.1 specification) last fall, Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) has already said it will demo its E6000 Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) chassis with a registered DOCSIS 3.1 cable modem at INTX. The demo will include delivery of data and video packets bonded across both single carrier QAM and OFDM channels. The company's first deployments are planned for later this year. (See Arris Preps First Live DOCSIS 3.1 Demo.)
Technicolor (Euronext Paris: TCH; NYSE: TCH) has also promised to demo a DOCSIS 3.1 cable modem at INTX -- the new MediaAccess TC4400 -- and odds are good that others will follow suit. Chipmakers Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and STMicroelectronics NV (NYSE: STM) are all developing silicon geared toward the D3.1 spec.
VidiPath -- Ready to solve the TV app problem
VidiPath, also known as CVP-2, is designed to let users stream their pay-TV services to smart TVs and other connected devices. And while it's been in the works for some time, it looks like INTX will be VidiPath's coming-out party. Comcast and Broadcom have a joint demo planned that will show the Comcast Xfinity service streamed to several VidiPath-enabled devices. Word is those devices will include Samsung Corp. and LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) smart TVs and likely a Broadcom client as well.
The big deal with VidiPath, which was developed under the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) , is that it makes it possible for operators to port their service to retail devices without creating a whole new app to do it. (See DLNA Issues New Guidelines for Multiscreen Video.)
Time Warner Cable is the rare MSO that's been aggressive about creating apps for multiple devices, including Roku Inc. and Xbox hardware. However, a large percentage of operators have developed apps for Android and iOS and called it a day. Once VidiPath is in place, service providers won't have to create apps for any device as long as it's VidiPath-compliant. Instead, the pay-TV experience will be streamed directly from a local server or from the cloud.
RDK -- Growing up and spreading out
The Reference Design Kit (RDK), an IP video software stack for set-tops and video gateways originally developed by Comcast, has now spread throughout the cable industry in a community that includes more than 25 pay-TV operators globally and more than 220 licensees of all kinds. Chip vendors, hardware manufacturers, software developers and system integrators are all promoting RDK offerings, and many will showcase their wares at INTX this year. (See RDK Spreads Its Wings.)
Today, just ahead of the show's opening, Espial Group Inc. announced a new RDK-capable software client that is designed to work across QAM, hybrid and IP-only networks. Three service providers are already using the platform, including one operator in North America and two in Europe.
Alticast Corp. has also announced that it will demo its Media Express offering at INTX. The solution, which supports both Android and RDK-based applications, was previously available only on an HDMI stick, but Alticast is now adding "small tabletop options" to its product portfolio.
In addition to the RDK stack for set-tops and video gateways (now called RDK-V), the RDK Management LLC is now working with partners on an RDK stack for broadband devices (RDK-B). While there haven't been any announcements yet, INTX would be a logical time for RDK-B devices to make their debut. Comcast was expected to begin trialing Arris broadband gateways with the RDK-B stack last year, and commercial availability was supposed to follow soon after. It wouldn't be a big surprise to see those gateways in Chicago. (See Comcast Plans RDK-for-Broadband Gateway Trials in Q4.)
WiFi -- Battle of the (spectrum) bands
It's hard to know exactly what exhibitors will demonstrate on the WiFi front at INTX, but the technology is guaranteed to have a major presence at the show… and not just because everyone will be trying to check their email at the McCormick Place convention center. Now that cable companies have committed to WiFI as their wireless network of choice, the race is on to improve the technology and to gain access to more spectrum to support increasing traffic. (See Carrier-Grade WiFi Still 2 Years Away – CableLabs.)
Heading into the second half of 2015, several industry organizations are working to create a specification for carrier-grade WiFi, which would make WiFi networks behave more like mobile ones. There may not be any formal updates announced at INTX, but the engineering teams involved are making progress, and the current schedule has certifications set to begin in 2016.
Meanwhile, WiFi may soon face disruption from new deployments of unlicensed LTE or LTE-U. The fear is that when mobile carriers start using some of their unlicensed LTE spectrum, it will create interference for nearby WiFi networks. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to ask for public comment on this issue in the near future. But at the conference formerly known as The Cable Show, it could still be a point of contention between traditional cable exhibitors and new telecom invitees AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ). (See Ericsson Preps LTE-U for Verizon, T-Mob & SK Telecom.)
High-Dynamic Range -- A major demo update from CES
The buzz factor around High-Dynamic Range (HDR) continues to get louder. The technology that adds luminance and contrast to imagery (first photographs and now video) was a hot commodity at the International CES show just four months ago. (See HDR: The Next Big Video Thing .)
But there was something missing from HDR TV in Las Vegas, and now CableLabs believes it can one-up those demos at INTX. CableLabs is planning side-by-side demonstrations of simulated HDR TV and standard video playback. Unlike at CES where HDR TVs were often isolated in their own rooms, CableLabs will use a split-screen set-up to give visitors a chance to compare the two experiences in the same setting.
The R&D organization will also demo video playback enhanced with a wider color gamut. The industry as a whole is aiming for a maximum allowable standard known as Rec. 2020 that far exceeds what any TV can practically display today. However, CableLabs has said it will hit about 80% of what Rec. 2020 is supposed to deliver. That equates to greater than 30% more colors displayed on screen, and should make for a much more vivid television image.
No doubt Ultra HD demos will also abound at INTX. But it may be HDR, and a wider color gamut, that steals the spotlight.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading