Cable is not throwing out its digital babies with the bathwater. In the decade ahead, the industry is positioned to deliver Gigabits of additional Internet bandwidth per home; HD video streams to dozens of new devices; and other advanced services. To get there, operators will be relying on core technologies they have in place today.
Cable operators have invested $185.9 billion on networks and infrastructure from 1996 to 2011, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, citing SNL Kagan research — and MSOs aren’t going to toss all of that into the dustbin.
Here are four key areas of cable-technology innovation to watch into 2013 and beyond, based on the industry’s existing building blocks.
CCAP: All of cable’s digital services — video, data and voice — ride on quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), an RF technology that’s been around for nearly two decades. But in a typical cable system, QAM channels are dedicated to discrete services, making it impossible to quickly reconfi gure the network.
Now the industry is steering toward the Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP), which in large part is a way to make a one-size-fits-all QAM. The CableLabs definition combines the functions of broadcast and narrowcast QAM channels into a single, integrated headend device. That will lay the groundwork for ultra-fast DOCSIS broadband and the efficient transition from traditional MPEG- 2 video transport to Internet Protocol video, as well as cut power and equipment space requirements.
“This platform will provide the economic scale for the industry to provide new high-bandwidth services,” Time Warner Cable chief technology officer Mike LaJoie said last year when CableLabs first announced the CCAP initiative.
CCAP development is well underway by several vendors, including Arris Group, Cisco Systems, Motorola Mobility and Casa Systems. Next week, Harmonic plans to show off what it calls the first true CCAP-capable platform at SCTE’s Cable-Tec Expo.
DOCSIS: The current DOCSIS 3.0 specification provides a minimum of 160 Megabits per second downstream and 120 Mbps up. But with some fine tuning, the cable-modem technology could deliver far more than that.
A group of equipment vendors teamed up on “DOCSIS NG,” which proposes changes to allow as much as 10 Gigabits per second of bandwidth downstream and perhaps 2 Gbps up (see “A Blueprint for Ultra-Fast DOCSIS,” June 18, 2012). To be sure, elements of DOCSIS NG would require new headend and cable-modem hardware. But it would preserve existing provisioning systems and the core architecture of DOCSIS.
CableLabs has initiated work on a DOCSIS 3.1 spec, which is expected to incorporate suggestions from the DOCSIS NG white paper presented at the 2012 Cable Show in May by Arris, Cisco, Motorola and Intel. At next week’s Cable-Tec Expo, DOCSIS 3.1 will get its first public airing during a special 90-minute discussion panel jointly presented by SCTE and CableLabs.
Hybrid IP/QAM Gateways: The Big Bang of video-hungry devices has just begun. Tablets, smartphones, game consoles, connected TVs and other gizmos are already in the hands of millions of cable TV subscribers, with millions more yet to be wrapped for the holidays.
Instead of delivering a full IPTV replica of the current MPEG-2 lineup, MSOs are starting to deploy hybrid gateways that take those good old digital cable signals and reformat them on the fly for MPEG-4, the format IP devices commonly use today. Down the road, such gateways also could incorporate High Efficiency Video Compression (HEVC), which is four times as efficient as MPEG-2 (see “The Next Big Thing in Video Compression,” Oct. 1, 2012).
Digital Terminal Adapters: Yes, analog television is dead. But millions of analog TVs are still working just fine; the NCTA estimates that as of mid-2012, there were nearly 11 million cable subscribers on analog service tiers.
Analog TV is a bandwidth pig, taking up at least 10 times as much room as digital video. To eliminate analog load on the network, operators — most notably Comcast — have used low cost digital terminal adapters, or DTAs, to convert digital TV into analog formats. That frees up bandwidth, delivering the full TV lineup digitally, while keeping customers with older TVs happy. Now, more operators are giving DTAs a hard look.
Cable’s next-generation technology platforms are based on the industry’s proven and reliable existing infrastructure.