The cooling air and shorter days marked the end of a
heads-down, get-things-done summer for cable's technology ranks, and the beginning of
more of the same as the year winds down.
With only one-quarter of the year remaining, cable's
engineers are fixated on new service launches, with "digital" as the resounding
"My priority is to make digital happen," said Tom
Jokerst, senior vice president of engineering for Charter Communications Inc., describing
the MSO's drive into digital-video delivery.
Ditto for Ken Wright, chief technical officer for
"Over the next few months, we have six to eight
markets where we'll launch cable modems and digital video -- we're going nuts
getting that ready," Wright said, when asked about the priorities facing him as the
year winds down.
Other MSOs are more sharply focused on telephony and data
At Tele-Communications Inc. -- which is in the process of
sorting out how it will merge with AT&T Corp. if the deal goes through, as planned --
engineering priorities appear to be shifting toward telephony now that digital-video
launches are clipping along.
"First and foremost are the network upgrades and the
continued rollout of high-speed data," said Tony Werner, TCI's executive vice
president, engineering. "Directly after that, our priority is voice communications
over hybrid fiber-coaxial." He described this as both constant-bit-rate and
That's the buzz at Charter, too, Jokerst said.
"We're going everywhere with data -- demand is what I'd call
'brisk,' and we're pushing it out everywhere." That includes
Charter's systems in California, Connecticut and Georgia, he added.
Another priority, Werner said, is the sorting out of
related network concerns for telephony service. In order for the telephone to stay active
when the power goes out, operators pursuing telephony have to choose between network
powering and battery powering. If they go the route of network powering -- as both Cox
Communications Inc. and MediaOne are doing -- they also have to install power-passing
taps, which requires work on the plant.
Werner and others also said they're concerned about a
new concept -- network availability -- which will likely become more important as
digital-broadband networks start to be used as much for communications as for
"We're very focused on network-availability
factors," Werner said.
Jokerst said part of that involves the ability to scale up
existing modem-deployment areas that are now starting to take off. "Staying ahead of
the demand curve is a big issue from a network standpoint," he said. "You
don't want to provision the network on day one for all potential subscribers, but you
also don't want to not be ready when the demand curve goes through an uptick."
In a change from years past, cable's top engineers
didn't put rebuilds and upgrades at the top of their priority lists. Although all of
them cited the need for 750-megahertz, two-way plant, none cited that as their top concern
for the waning months of 1998.
"We're still doing a lot of rebuild, but
that's getting to be old news," Wright said, describing InterMedia's
aggressive stance on making its networks ready for 750-MHz, bidirectional traffic.
Instead, he said, it's simultaneous launches of digital video and high-speed data.
Most said they're mired in budgets now to determine
which projects get what priority next year.
"It's that time of year again," said Alex
Best, senior vice president of engineering for Cox, describing the annual capital-budget
process. "It spans several months, where we work with each of the systems to make
sure that we understand what their plans are for upgrades, fiber deployment and new
Best said that outside of budgeting, he's focused on
getting Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s digital-video gear installed, as well as on a
companywide shift to the use of standards-based cable modems.
"We've got a lot of folks working on how we
transition to retail," Best said.
Steve Dukes, vice president of digital-broadband technology
at MediaOne, said his main priority for the rest of 1998 is "to make sure that
OpenCable stays open."
Tasked with developing the MSO's digital-video plans,
Dukes said he's also closely involved in the development of removable set-top
security devices, called "PODs," or point-of-deployment modules. "It's
imperative," he said. "I'm hoping that we can figure out what it means to
be open, in terms of operating systems and APIs [application program interfaces]."