Cable probably will still be delivering video to MPEG-2 set-tops in 10 years, but in the meantime they will need to quench their customers' thirst for IP video, according to a panel of cable chief technology officers.
"It's less about IP, and more about satisfying the growing demand from consumers," Comcast CTO Tony Werner said.
According to Werner, the debut of Apple's iPad last month crystallized the notion of delivering video to IP-based devices. "It's really a great device for video consumption," he said. "There's more video consumed on iPad than any other device short of the television. That's one big piece to solve for."
The wide-ranging panel on Tuesday, "Road Trip: Mapping Cable's New-Tech Progression," was moderated by Multichannel News columnist Leslie Ellis.
On the question of IP video services, Time Warner Cable CTO Michael LaJoie said the idea is for the MSO to be able to deliver all of its services to "the broadest panoply of devices."
"Most of our services go to devices that are leased," he said. "What we'd like to have is have third-party products connect and authenticate -- it changes the game a lot. It's close to becoming a reality."
Werner said he believes the cost to deliver an hour of MPEG-4 video over an IP network will be the same as the cost of delivering an hour of MPEG-2 video.
"But that doesn't mean you're going to rip out working gear," he added. "As long as you're delivering what the consumer wants, that's the end goal."
Added Dermot O'Carroll, senior vice president of access networks at Rogers Cable Communications, "Our job is to deliver services to our customers. Our customers are not going all-IP. We have to continue delivering services to conventional devices."
LaJoie agreed that cable operators will not do a "hard cut" to IP video. "You'll see MPEG-2 transport boxes in our network for another 10 years -- because they will still work. Some of our customers don't want to get connected to IP... it's not interesting to them."
For Suddenlink Communications, the most logical approach would be a residential IP gateway that tunes to QAMs and then outputs IP video to a low-cost device, CTO Terry Cordova said.
The CTOs discussed a percolating cross-operator plan to provide peering arrangements on telephony traffic, in part to reduce the call-termination costs they pay to telephone companies.
"We're going to try to peer in lots of different ways," said Scott Hatfield, Cox Communications chief technology officer. But operators will never drop their local connections into the public telephone system -- the peering project is "just a question of getting efficiencies."
Werner said that besides more favorable economics, having MSOs peer on voice will potentially result in high-quality services "especially as we introduce HD voice."
The discussion also touched on interactive TV. Ellis noted that Comcast has deployed support for the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) to more than 12 million homes, then asked LaJoie if Time Warner Cable would meet its target of deploying EBIF to 6 million homes this year.
"We'll hit that number," LaJoie said. "We're coming up with some rich applications on that platform."
LaJoie said one of the challenges in deploying EBIF is making sure the in-band information survives all grooming, statmuxing and other video processing -- a process known as "pipe-cleaning."
The CTOs provided an update on their DOCSIS 3.0 rollouts.
Comcast offers DOCSIS 3.0 service to more than 40 million homes, covering 83% of the operator's footprint, Werner said. Comcast dedicates a minimum of three 6-MHz channels for wideband everywhere, and is now adding a fourth in most areas, he added.
LaJoie said TWC is "installing nothing but 3.0 gear now," but he noted that DOCSIS 3.0 has been deployed to about 20% of footprint now.
Cox has DOCSIS 3.0 in about half its footprint and is projecting it will be a little more than two-thirds by the end of the year, Hatfield said.
Suddenlink offers DOCSIS 3.0 to about 65% of basic subs, up from 12% in mid-2009, and is aiming for close to 75% by the end of 2010. And Rogers has deployed 3.0 across 100% of its footprint, but offers services in 70%, O'Carroll said.
Comcast, after testing upstream channel bonding, is in the process of turning on higher-speed upstream speeds. Werner said the MSO has launch upstream channel bonding with DOCSIS 3.0 in two markets.
"We've seen a lot more growth in our downstream over the last 12 to 24 months, but that said we see growth on both up and down," he said. "We have tremendous capability to blast the upstream more if and where it's needed."