Technology

Cable's Firing Up More HD, Bandwidth

6/22/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

Cable's hitting the triple digits. The talk here last week at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' Cable-Tec Expo 2007 bounced from 100 high-definition TV channels to 100-Megabit-per-second broadband. Here are some highlights from muggy central Florida:

Cox Brings On the HD

To counter DirecTV's “future” of 150 HD channels, Cox Communications president Pat Esser has told his technical crew to create shelf space for at least 50 HD channels by the end of 2007, and then double that in 2008.

Esser, speaking at a CEO roundtable, also said that Cox would soon launch a Pepsi Challenge-style comparative marketing campaign pitting the operator's HDTV services against satellite's.

“The industry just did a taste test [and] consumers thought our product was better,” said Esser, who declined to provide further details.

Asked about DirecTV's false-advertising lawsuit against Comcast — prompted by ads citing a similar consumer-preference survey — Esser replied, “Well, that's the response if you want to suppress the information.”

CableCard Double Standard?

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president and CEO Kyle McSlarrow used his opening keynote speech to give industry techs an attaboy. He lauded operator efforts to push forward on HDTV and “wideband” (a.k.a. Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0).

What McSlarrow didn't mention in his prepared speech: The Federal Communications Commission's July 1 ban on integrated set-top boxes, which is set to go into effect for most operators unless the agency pulls a deus ex machina sometime this week.

McSlarrow saved some cutting remarks on this issue for a follow-up Q&A session. When asked about the consumer-electronics industry's push to get cable to use CableCards — which the NCTA contends will do nothing but cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars — McSlarrow said, “It seems to me that everyone associated with the consumer-electronics industry should be asked, 'You have a proud history of being against regulation, why won't you be principled and consistent in this case and oppose regulations that hurt consumers?'”

Motorola Turns Dial to 5

Motorola kicked up the advertised capacity of its BSR 64000 cable modem termination system by a factor of five — claiming that it can provide up to 5 gigabits per second in a single chassis — via a new hardware module that supports 32 downstream quadrature-amplitude-modulation channels.

The TX32 module, which Motorola plans to ship in December, supports the channel-bonding features of DOCSIS 3.0, as well as connectivity for DOCSIS 1.0, 1.1 and 2.0 cable modems.

According to Motorola, the downstream channels on the TX32 can be coupled with the downstream and upstream channels on existing 2:8 CMTS modules (two downstream and eight upstream ports) to provide up to 138 downstream channels in a single BSR 64000, for up to 5 Gbps of aggregate downstream capacity.

DOCSIS 2.0 Bondage

Can't wait for 3.0? Set-top manufacturer Pace Micro Technology will use Broadcom's chips in its boxes to bond multiple downstream DOCSIS 2.0 channels, to deliver theoretical download speeds of 100 Mbps. Broadcom says the channel-bonding feature of its “DOCSIS 2.0-plus” chip is forward-compatible with the full DOCSIS 3.0.

Using the Broadcom chip, Pace's DOCSIS-enabled set-tops will be able to display video sent over the connection or pass data through to Ethernet devices such as a router or PC. The downside: It's a nonstandard solution. So far, the feedback from operators is split, Pace Americas vice president of technology Chris Dinallo said. Some are unwaveringly committed to 3.0, while others “have come up to us and said, 'Thank you guys for stepping up and doing this,'” he said.

From Geneva With Love

Another set-top maker, Switzerland's Advanced Digital Broadcast (ADB), officially nailed up its shingle in the States. “We're now selling to cable in North America,” said Mike Hawkey, ADB Americas executive vice president of marketing and sales.

No customers to announce yet but Hawkey said several operators are testing ADB set-tops, which use CableLabs' OpenCable Application Platform to run program guides and other applications and CableCard specifications to support security.

All of the company's set-tops will support HD, according to Hawkey. “We don't see cable buyers interested in standard-definition-only moving forward.”

ADB will emphasize guide performance and interoperability (the company bought OCAP developer Vidiom Systems last year). “We're competing for the share of set-tops the operators are not going to buy from Motorola and SA,” Hawkey said.

Pivoting, But Slowly

The four operators that linked up with Sprint Nextel in November 2005 are taking their sweet time pushing the Pivot-branded mobile phone service.

It's been 20 months since the Sprint-cable joint venture was announced, and what are the results? “Several thousand” customers each for Comcast and Time Warner Cable, according to executives from the operators on a chief technology officers' panel. Advance/Newhouse Communications, meanwhile, is just getting ready to deploy in one unspecified market.

Cox's Esser explained the thinking: “We're probably slow-go on this because we don't want to mess up the customer relationship,” he said. “You don't just get into this business in 24 hours.”

An 'Indie' Cable Lab

With about 150 employees, San Diego-based Solekai Systems calls itself the largest independent engineering-services company specializing in digital-video-product design, implementation and testing.

Now the privately held firm plans to open a 7,000-square-foot cable-testing facility in Boulder, Colo., sometime this summer for set-top makers, middleware vendors or anyone else who wants to test cable interoperability.

Solekai director of marketing Joe Matibag said the company's services orientation sets the company's Independent Test Lab apart from other systems-integration and testing outfits. “We're not biased toward any implementations,” he said. “We are not trying to sell you any IP [intellectual property].”

Solekai's Colorado location has 50 engineers who have worked for a range of companies, including Time Warner, Comcast, Harmonic and Conexant Systems, Matibag said.

The company has spent “in the significant six figures” building the lab, he added, including the installation of Motorola and Scientific Atlanta headends. The facility will have 22 open benches and 13 private lab spaces.

March