Policy + charging

Cable Crafts 'Turbo' Option

Cable is inching closer to having a "turbo" button that will let customers ratchet up broadband speeds on the fly.

A brainstorming session at CableLabs about how to deal with peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic has resulted in the idea of a "priority upgrade" that could, for example, be used to more quickly download a large file such as a movie.

As described (PDF) by CableLabs, that invention -- dubbed the "Method for dynamic control of per-flow bandwidth preemption" [Ed. note: Catchy!] -- will let a customer request that the cable operator provision (mostly likely through the cable modem and the cable modem termination system) a temporarily faster and higher-priority level of service.

Although some patent lawyers find the disclosure a bit odd, they think CableLabs may be publicizing the concept now so it can pave the way toward a future patent filing that would keep the concept out of competitive hands, or at least require rivals to purchase licenses if they intended to use the technology.

High-priority broadband
According to the invention document, the enhanced, upgraded state of the broadband service is designed to persist even when congestion is present on the network. When the customer's high-priority flow is finished, service would revert back to the usual speed level.

The concept could open up new ways for operators to deal with P2P traffic and heavy-volume flows such as streaming video. CableLabs uses this example: Customers wanting to use P2P on the cheap could get a service tier that offers big bandwidth and a low price -- but low priority as well. The caveat is that the tier would come with a "high likelihood of preemption," according to CableLabs. "This would move a greater proportion of peer-to-peer service to off peak times."

This invention, quietly disclosed on the CableLabs Website on May 11, could also help operators such as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) that are looking to complement their traditional TV video services with Web-based offerings. (See Fancast Does Downloads and Cable-Led Web TV Deals Still Forming.)

It's also designed to apply to over-the-top, Internet-fueled video services from the likes of Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) and Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) And operators could use this invention to automatically prioritize emergency services, such as 911 calls.

Net Neutrality zealots have raised their hackles anytime someone mentions operators prioritizing or de-prioritizing Internet traffic. They also aren't wild about any preordained priority access deals between MSOs and content providers. But in this case, it would be the subscriber, not the MSO or a Web TV partner, making the request for the priority upgrade.

Patent in the making?
CableLabs officials say the invention was posted to get the high-level concept "out there," but acknowledged that the organization or its MSO members "aren't looking to take any immediate action on it."

However, they add that CableLabs has the opportunity to file a patent claim within a year.

"It's highly unusual that a company would publicly disclose the fact that they made an 'invention' that they then may or may not seek to protect with a patent," said Steve Lundberg, a shareholder and patent attorney with the Minneapolis-based firm of Schwegman, Lundberg & Woessner. "For a typical company, that would be a very inadvisable thing to do because you're signaling to everybody what your technology path is."

But that may be the idea. CableLabs, he says, may be publicizing the invention to prevent competitors from filing similar patents or to protect the cable industry from "patent trolls" that try to make money off of intellectual property portfolios without creating any products based on them.

The CableLabs invention is a brief three pages, but it could be followed by a more detailed provisional patent application if the idea is deemed marketable, said Amy Goldsmith, a patent attorney with New York firm Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman.

The invention is not entirely new. A CableLabs spec called PacketCable Multimedia (PCMM) supports dynamic quality of service (QoS) and could be made to support the concept of a customer-activated turbo button.

Tom Donnelly, executive vice president of marketing and sales for Sandvine Inc. , a company that makes gear that fits into the PCMM ecosystem, reviewed the document, but said it's too early to say how different the invention is from what's in the older specs. "But clearly the PCMM concept suggests these kinds of [applications]," he added. "I think it's a cool idea."

Comcast and Cox Communications Inc. , meanwhile, have already deployed or have started testing new bandwidth management systems of their own. Cox, for example, categorizes traffic as "time-sensitive" (e.g., Web pages, voice calls, streaming videos, games) or "not" (e.g., file uploads, peer-to-peer, and Usenet). (See Comcast Goes 'Protocol Agnostic' Everywhere and Cox: Packet Delays Won't Hurt.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to Cable Next-Gen Video Strategies: Competing in the Three-Screen World, a one-day conference that will take a comprehensive look at the cable industry's attempts to generate revenues and fend off its rivals by deploying next-generation video technologies. To be staged in Atlanta, June 25, admission is free for attendees meeting our prequalification criteria. For more information, or to register, click here.

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