Cable CTOs Paint Ambitious Future


Denver -- Cable's top technologists are doubly focused
on 750-megahertz, two-way plant upgrades and the services that will ride on those
networks, they said at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' recent
Cable-Tec Expo here.

Saying that the time is right to "seize the
opportunities" facing them with digital video, high-speed data and packet-data
services, chief technical officers at the top four MSOs chatted about their challenges and
workload, focusing on how to "implement the vision" of broadband.

The foursome advised a room of 3,000 onlookers to get busy
immediately on digital video and high-speed data.

"There's not a single cable operator that
currently shouldn't be planning on launching digital video," said Alex Best,
senior vice president of engineering for Cox Communications Inc. Without it, he said,
"you don't have 150 channels, so you're going to lose customers to DBS
[direct-broadcast satellite]."

Telephony -- at least in the circuit-switched, digital
format -- is a must for some, like Cox, but not for all. Meanwhile, IP (Internet-protocol)
phone technology is not available enough to deploy today, the executives said.

"It's a matter of time," said Tony Werner,
executive vice president of engineering for Tele-Communications Inc., on IP phone.
"If you're talking about 10 years from now, most services will be packetized by
then, for efficiency reasons. But if you want to do it this afternoon, it's a little
tough as a commercial application."

TCI, Time Warner Cable and other MSOs are all testing
voice-over-IP in their respective labs, and they are actively participating in the
industrywide "PacketCable" consortium to identify and commercialize packet-based
services over broadband, the MSOs said.

On the data front, the engineers emphasized that there are
few, if any, technical challenges associated with linking their respective high-speed-data

The existence of a single, interconnected, nationwide
high-speed backbone is appealing to long distance carriers like AT&T Corp. and others,
which need to find a way to move packetized voice traffic from their long-haul networks
into residences without using expensive telco plant.

"It's a business question, not a technology
question," said James Chiddix, chief technical officer for Time Warner, noting that
Time Warner's Road Runner is already interconnecting its high-speed-data centers
between its regions.

So far, the chief technical officers agreed, none of them
is involved in "peering" agreements, or Internet linkages, with one another.

"It's fair to say that the technical problems are
pretty manageable. It's mostly business-relationship problems," said Bud
Wonsiewicz, MediaOne's chief technical officer.

New services also dominated the conversation among the
engineers, with Chiddix citing video-on-demand as "perhaps the single largest
opportunity, long-term."

Citing consumer-buying information gleaned from Time
Warner's Full Service Network in Orlando, Fla., which is now inactive, Chiddix said
VOD is the way that people prefer to watch TV, in large part because they've been
"trained by their VCRs."

"The FSN certainly confirmed that people will spend a
significant amount of money to watch TV this way," he said.

Wonsiewicz agreed, describing the notion of slicing up TV
programs into bite-sized clips as "an entirely new, highly interactive experience,
and we're the only ones who can drive it."

TCI, with 430,000 digital set-tops deployed, remains
convinced that the revenue streams are there to aggressively pursue digital-video
services, and Werner said boxes deployed in two-way systems this summer will be capable of
handling VOD services.

But Best wasn't as convinced. "The economic
problems [with VOD] are certainly getting resolved, but I confess that I'm glad [that
Chiddix] is going to take the arrows on this one," he joked.

Not surprisingly, the industry's lead technologists
were bullish on the future, and they cited few threats. Werner characterized his fear as
one of keeping Wall Street happy so that investors don't become impatient and bail
out, while Chiddix emphasized the need for continued industry unity.

"We need to avoid complacency and divisiveness,"
Chiddix said. "We're an industry that is not used to working together, yet there
are a bunch of people out there who want to slice off chunks of our business," so it
is more important than ever to stick together.

Wonsiewicz said his biggest fear is "that the monopoly
heritage of the industry will prevent it from reacting in a time scale fast enough to
avoid public-policy and government intervention that will transform our industry going

That's why there's such a sense of urgency, he
added, to get ahead in a world that's governed by Moore's Law, which says that
technology doubles in capabilities every 18 months.