Cable Operators

Tuning Technologies for A Unified Service Picture

9/22/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

As befitting its status as the nation’s largest cable operator, Comcast Corp. is thinking big when it comes to new technology development.

That is evident in its engineering “to-do” list that ranges from a new high-capacity network to digital set-top boxes that can display video and Internet data applications. While that has Comcast delving into increasingly complex services and core technologies, the overriding mantra at its Philadelphia headquarters is one of singularity: tuning to a single picture that delivers all services across a common network controlled by a single provisioning and billing system to powerful, multifunction consumer devices.

Comcast is well on its way in assembling its backbone infrastructure, with core pieces already in place using not just 10 Gigabit Ethernet but 40 Gigabit optical connections. At the same time, it also is building converged regional area networks, an Internet Protocol scheme that is carrying video, voice and data.

At Your Service
Comcast Launch Highlights
Source:Multichannel News research
1996 Launched high-speed data service
2001 Launched high-definition TV service
2002 Debuted Comcast On Demand, its video-on-demand offering
2002 AT&T Broadband, soon to be acquired by Comcast, launched circuit-switched phone service
2003 Launched digital video recorder service using HD set-top boxes
2004 Launched voice-over-Internet Protocol service Comcast Digital Voice
August 2004 Launched Video Mail, offering video e-mail messaging
July 2005 Launched two new high-speed data tiers offering 6 Mbps and 8 Mbps connections
May 2006 Comcast and IGN launched premium online game service

Comcast is also exploring next-generation services that mix traditional MPEG-2 video and Internet Protocol data connections through the Next Generation Network Architecture project. A joint project between Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications Inc., NGNA lays out a future cable scheme where existing IP-based services such as broadband cable-modem offerings, and non-IP-based MPEG video flow across the same delivery system.

“It all comes together as a hybrid, where you are leveraging the best of both worlds — MPEG-based service, as well as an IP-based service,” said executive vice president of national engineering and technology operations John Schanz. “We’re leveraging our strength, and we are moving into new technologies simultaneously, because I think you do yield the best of both worlds.”

On the set-top box front, Comcast has developed its guidelines for what these dual video and IP set-tops will look like. Dubbed the Real Next Generation set-top design, it spells out three core groups of boxes — a basic model, a dual-tuner digital video recorder and a high-end multiroom DVR/broadband media center.

With that as a guide, future services will be delivered by a single network to these devices, but displayed in their native formats.

ALL DIGITAL

Comcast was one of the earliest boosters in the drive to move video services to an all-digital format. As with other operators, it has seen digital rising fast, reaching 10.5 million customers as of June, compared to 21.7 million basic analog customers.

In addition, Comcast has rolled out simulcast video — beaming digital and analog feeds of its basic video channel lineup to a large portion of its service territory. The operator also plans to roll out new video services based in digital delivery.

Overall, Comcast is not revealing its exact timeline for making a conversion to all-digital, in part because of a concern that many consumers are still comfortable with analog service and may not be ready to make the switch.

“Comcast is heading toward the digital transition,” Schanz said. “The question is whether the customers are ready.”

Meanwhile, the operator also is forging ahead to meet a pair of deadlines for deploying new digital set-top box technology. The first is an October deadline pledged by National Cable & Telecommunications Association members, including Comcast, to start deploying the Open Cable Applications Platform middleware scheme. OCAP will provide a standardized blueprint for developing new television interactive applications.

The second is the Federal Communications Commission’s July 1, 2007 deadline to introduce cable set-top boxes with removable CableCARD conditional access cards. CableCARDs would make it possible for set-tops and cable-ready TVs to be sold at retail. Upon receiving a CableCARD from an operator, a customer can plug it into the set-top and receive cable service.

Comcast has filed for a waiver of that deadline for its lower-end digital set-tops, including the Motorola DCT-700, but otherwise it is on track to meet both deadlines.

“We’re very much on schedule with that, and working through the technical issues to ensure the same customer experience with those new technologies,” Schanz said.

DOCSIS PUSH

On the data front, Comcast also is backing CableLabs Inc.’s recently finalized Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0.

DOCSIS 3.0 would allow Comcast to bond multiple data channels to supply customer connections upwards of 160 Mbps or greater to the customer, and speeds of 120 Mbps for the connection from the customer back to the network.

“That’s a technology that we are very bullish on and very committed to,” Schanz said.

But simple data delivery isn’t the only piece of Comcast’s technology puzzle. It also is spending time honing the systems that run the business end of things with its “Bedrock” initiative.

Bedrock supplies Comcast’s single back-office foundation by combining customer billing records with the actual provisioning tools used to turn on services. That allows customer-service representatives to see on a computer screen what products customers already receive and what services they are qualified to receive, and as such it provides the core transaction system that covers everything from the initial order entry through provisioning and service activation.

Bedrock is now overseeing Comcast’s data and voice systems, and part of its newer video services. It will eventually cover all services, including traditional video and future wireless service.

“That’s also an element that we will be building on in the coming years, to add more services, more capabilities, tie in more subsystems, and it is really performing as well as I would have hoped,” Schanz said. “And I think it is going to be very scalable, and moves us aggressively into the services-oriented architecture that a lot of people generalize about.”

While all of these technology initiatives may produce key tools for Comcast, they are only one part of the total development process. Equally important are the services springing from these technologies, and the people who work to develop and deliver them.

“I don’t believe at the end of the day that the core technologies in and of themselves are the differentiator,” Schanz said. “You really need to have a playbook, and the playbook that I worked toward in the past and we are moving very aggressively here in my organization is basically about technology, process and people.”

September