Cable-industry leaders last week had new reasons to be
confident that their aggressive advanced-services agenda will take them where they want to
In a meeting in Denver that was closed to the press, CEOs
and other senior executives learned that they should be able to begin field-testing
standards-based cable modems by this fall, and that technical solutions have been found
that could speed the resolution of several key issues. These include how to handle
high-definition TV signals and the chances for creating a nationwide
"packet-cable" network without requiring all parties to merge their business
The news came out of the winter meeting of the membership
of Cable Television Laboratories Inc., during which participants said progress was made in
three areas: MCNS (Multimedia Cable Network System) modems; the OpenCable advanced set-top
initiative; and the creation of a packet-cable network, said CableLabs president Richard
Perhaps most significant, Green added, the meeting afforded
the first opportunity to explain to a large gathering of industry leaders the full
potential and feasibility of developing an integrated national packet-cable network that
could support an array of advanced data services in the residential and business markets.
"Our membership has a better understanding of the
opportunity that the industry has to put in place a very powerful platform based on IP
[Internet-protocol] technology that can operate separate from, but in parallel with, the
digital video networks that they're building," Green said.
"The goal isn't just to implement the technical
means to deliver packet telephony, but to exploit the full range of new advances that are
open to us for many other classes of service, as well," he added.
Much of the recent high-level discussion about
interconnecting data networks has focused on achieving a business merger of the main
providers: Time Warner Cable's Road Runner and MediaOne's MediaOne Express are
in the process of merging, and talks are ongoing with @Home Network. But sources have said
that those talks are slow-going, so industry leaders are refocusing their attention on the
technical means of integrating the two platforms that are currently operating separately.
"It can be done, and there's a great incentive to
get it done," Green said.
Of more immediate concern is the pace of development on the
modem and OpenCable fronts, where various teams reported that they were on schedule,
despite the complex technical issues that they're facing.
The OpenCable teams, working closely with Microsoft Corp.
and Sun Microsystems Inc., remained optimistic that they could complete their
specifications in time for the National Cable Television Association Show in early May.
On the modem front, with manufacturers about to enter a
sixth round of interoperability testing, CableLabs was planning a major demonstration of
interoperability involving some 10-dozen modems from several rival camps at the National
Industry demand for MCNS modems is so strong that
manufacturers are going out of their way to beat CableLabs' production timelines in
recognition that being early to market could make a big difference in sales, sources said.
And the perceived value of MCNS modems could grow even
more: Participants in the process were about to begin selecting software solutions that
would incorporate IP telephony and other services on the devices, even as those services
require strict quality standards, said David Fellows, chief technical officer of MediaOne
"I'm pretty confident that we'll see these
capabilities entering the market by the end of the year or early next year," Fellows
Coinciding with the first day of the CableLabs conference
in Denver was another meeting on HDTV with several cable CEOs and the CEOs of CBS owner
Westinghouse Corp., Tandy Corp., Circuit City, Panasonic Consumer Electronics and Thomson
Consumer Electronics in attendance, sources said.
"It was a good, solid, productive discussion that
allowed people to better understand each others' positions," said one meeting
participant, asking not to be named.
While differences remain within the ranks of cable and the
outside group, new developments pointed to possible solutions in two key areas of
potential dispute: one involving the passing of HDTV signals through cable systems to HDTV
receivers, and the other involving the conversion of HDTV signals at the set-top for
reception on analog TVs.
Companies that had been battling over the best means to
ensure copy protection of HDTV signals passed from cable to HDTV sets have agreed on a
format that should quickly lead to implementation in set-tops and HDTV receivers.
In addition, two hardware vendors demonstrated components
that could be used in set-tops to convert any type of HDTV signal for display over analog
sets, thereby shifting the burden of conversion away from the main set-top processor and
avoiding the contention over whether cable might have to limit the range of signals that
it would convert in the interests of keeping costs down.