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Optical/IP

Cable Braces for Services Rush

SAN FRANCISCO -- The theme of the 2005 National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) National Show -- "Cable Puts You in Control" -- is spot on. The cable industry is being transformed by technology, with multiple systems operators (MSOs) undergoing the shift towards providing services and not just programming.

The technologies are changing the culture of the cable business, as panelists noted repeatedly this week. "We're now a full-fledged telecommunications industry," said Peter Stern, senior VP of strategic planning at Time Warner Cable.

And the changes will accelerate with the rise of interactive services. The model of selling one set-top box per household, for example, could give way to providing that box plus one wireless handset per individual, if fixed-mobile convergence comes to life. "It's no longer a home-based or business-based model" in that scenario, said Mimi Thigpen, VP of strategy for Cox Communications Inc. (NYSE: COX).

Of course, for all those big changes to happen, the technology has to get there first. So, amid the glamorous booths touting the Cartoon Network, the Independent Film Channel (IFC), and other content (see Just for Kicks), vendors were pitching the technologies that could help redefine the cable industry.

Disconnecting
Wireless was among the hottest topics, of course. Equipment vendors have become obsessed with "seamless handoff," the ability for a connection to switch among cable, cellular, and wireless LAN at will. This would, for example, allow voice calls to switch to the WLAN during those moments when cellular connectivity drops off.

Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) was among the vendors pushing this concept, demonstrating a TV signal being bumped to a cell phone. And startup LongBoard Inc., which makes a box that would handle handoff between a cellular and WiFi network, has been busy lining up partners on the wireline side -- Cedar Point Communications Inc. recently, and Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS), as announced this week (see Cedar, LongBoard Demo Interoperability and LongBoard Intros SIP Mobility for MSOs).

Other vendors catching the wireless bug:

Pump Up the Bandwidth
"Wideband" is fast becoming a buzzword in cable circles, as vendors find ways to combine multiple Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) channels to provide more bandwidth to the subscriber. Cable operators want to do this partly for bragging rights -- beating out the data rates of competing media -- and partly to create overhead for "commercial services or peer-to-peer types of services," says Rob Kissell, product manager on Cisco Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSCO) service provider marketing team.

Arris claims to have invented the wideband concept and demonstrated a crude version at last year's Cable-Tec Expo. This week, Arris was showing the combining of four channels of 40 Mbit/s each. The company's first wideband products will expand that to eight channels and should be announced later this year.

Cisco, meanwhile, one-upped Arris with a 16-channel wideband demonstration, part of the company's quest to pack 1 Gbit/s onto a cable feed, as announced in February (see Cisco Tests 1 Gbit/s on Coax). The demonstration used a channel-bonding approach that Cisco has submitted to Cable Television Laboratories Inc. (CableLabs) and a chip developed by partner BroadLogic Network Technologies Inc.

Standards and Practices
Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR), meanwhile, focused on security for its NCTA splash, adding PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM) support to the SDX-300, a platform inherited in the Unisphere Networks acquisition of 2002 (see Juniper Unveils MSO Security System). Juniper's love of PCMM is no big surprise considering the technology's resemblance to the Juniper-backed Infranet Initiative. Both attempt to wring security and reliability from IP networks to allow real-time services -- not just VOIP, but videoconferencing and interactive gaming as well, two areas for which cable has high hopes.

Similar goals are found in the Next Generation Network Architecture (NGNA), which originated with Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Cox, and Time-Warner two years ago. The project's goal was to draft the network of the future, one that would be better prepared for high-bandwidth services. One key element of the NGNA is a modular cable modem termination system (CMTS), which vendors such as Cisco and Motorola have begun to provide.

BigBand Networks Inc. came out with its modular CMTS at this week's show. Unrelated to any of this standards stuff, the company also announced a VOIP win with Cox, which is using the Cuda line of CMTSs, and support for IP policy servers from Camiant Inc. (see BigBand Enhances Cable Gear and Cox Uses BigBand in VOIP Rollout).

Riding the Light
Even the geeky photonics realm gets a nod at the National show. Mahi Networks Inc. was touting its new Lx7 Multi-Service Optical Transport System, a kid brother to the flagship Vx7. The Lx7 doesn't have the reconfigurable capabilities of the Vx7, but it can match the Vx7's 32 DWDM channels (see Mahi Delivers CWDM to MSOs).

Mahi also brought out more interfaces for the Vx7, including support for the XFP multisource agreement.

Separately, Juniper released a 10-Gbit/s DWDM card using tunable lasers to offer 45 wavelengths.

Hooking Up
Then there were the usual partnership and alliance announcements...

  • Arris and Axerra Networks Inc. teamed up to give MSOs ammunition against the T1/E1 business. They'll be putting Arris's Cadent CMTS next to Axerra's pseudowire transport boxes to offer corporate voice-and-data lines that would compete with the telcos' T1/E1 franchise. The idea could be applied to the wireless backhaul market, too (see Arris, Axerra Team Up ).

  • Startup RGB Networks Inc. found a systems-integration partner in Motorola, and the pair have jointly produced a product: the Simulcast Edge Processor (SEP) which uses Gigabit Ethernet to deliver analog programming packed into an MPEG-2 feed (see RGB Teams Up With Motorola).

  • Motorola also expanded its agreement with VOIP provider Net2Phone Inc. (Nasdaq: NTOP), with the latter naming Motorola's VT1000 voice gateway as the "preferred endpoint" for its VoiceLine service. And while we're at it, Motorola had a contract award to announce, too, providing BSR 64000 CMTS/edge routers to Brazil's Net Serviços de Comunicação, for IP services including voice.


Fun and Games
Of course, the real fun at the National show comes from trolling the network booths, as the likes of ESPN, MTV, and Playboy (you don't seriously expect a link there, do you?) market themselves to operators. A few observations from that side of the house:
  • Best booth juxtaposition: The skimpy Vegas outfits of Casino and Gaming Television right next to the professional business suits of the Lifetime network.
  • Best new channel: Current, an interactive network whose 18- to 34-year-old audience will help decide programming. Its chairman is that famous hipster, Al Gore.
  • Most annoying trend: Does every sport get its own network now? The Tennis Channel? HorseRacing TV?? (Runner-up: The continued preponderance of reality shows, culminating in the creation of -- and we really wish we were making this up -- the Fox Reality Channel.)


— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading


For more on this topic, check out the Heavy Reading report: Cable Triple Play: The VOIP Card.

For further education, visit the archives of related Light Reading Webinars:

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