Comcast, TWC Shoot for Video Unity

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The RDK Management LLC joint venture unveiled Thursday by Comcast and Time Warner Cable gets the nation’s two largest MSOs moving in the same general technical direction as they begin to migrate their video platforms over to IP.

It also gives them the opportunity to achieve the kind of unity the industry missed out on many moons ago, when cable started going digital. That’s when Tele-Communications Inc. aligned with General Instrument, and Time Warner Cable went with its Pegasus platform and Scientific –Atlanta -- decisions that eventually created a duopoly that stymied the industry’s ability to create a diverse set-top supply chain and slowed cable’s pace of innovation to a crawl. Only now is the U.S. cable industry beginning to turn the page on that part of its video history, and push past decisions that were clouded by “not invented here” attitudes.

And it’s a mistake that cable’s been careful not to repeat.  When Comcast and TWC were developing separate next-gen cable access network projects (Comcast had the Converged Multiservice Access Platform, or CMAP, while TWC had a twist on it called the Converged Edge Services Access Router, or CESAR), the industry came to its senses and fixed things before those efforts reached the point of no return. They tied them together to create the Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP), which is now under the auspices of CableLabs, creating an industry-wide specification and some certainty for the vendors that make the stuff. Hallelujah!

And with the emergence of the RDK J.V., we have more evidence that the lesson has truly sunken in. For set-top suppliers that have been trying to scratch and claw their way in, word of the RDK venture should serve as welcome news, as it could create an open environment that didn’t exist before. If you’re part of the old duopoly, you’re probably not thrilled about this, but not all that surprised, either.

Now comes the hard part – executing on the joint venture.

And that’s not a given, as cable’s track record with joint ventures and partnerships has been a mixed bag.

There have been good ones (the “Cable Wi-Fi” roaming alliance and InDemand), smart, prescient  ones (SpectrumCo LLC), some that had no shot of success from the start (Pivot), some that had to be repaired and redirected (Canoe), some that broke apart (TVWorks), and some bad ones that have just stayed bad (PolyCipher).

But for the RDK to have any realistic shot of achieving any sense of unity, Comcast and TWC simply had to come together on this.

Now, who’s going to join the party? Charter Communications, Rogers Communications, J:COM, and Liberty Global have all shown some level of interest in the RDK. But signing a license is a far cry from a deployment commitment.

Liberty Media honcho John Malone has been preaching the gospel about how cable should consolidate  further and drive more scale into the economics of the business, which presumably includes gateways and set-top. I realize that M&A is the big driver in that thinking, but today’s announcement presents an opportunity to achieve a piece of the scale he claims to be seeking.

But that’s step 7,434 of the long journey ahead. Today’s news was a big step forward for two MSOs. How well it goes from here will determine if that step is more than symbolic.

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