Cable Show Tech Papers: A Reader's Guide


A common question posed to anyone who writes about technology is this: How do you get ideas about what to write about?

For me, a recurring trove is the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s annual collection of technical papers. This year, 29 papers gobbledygeeked their way across 237 pages, clumped into seven topics:

Bandwidth, compression, security, advertising, optics, mobile, and architecture. 

Here’s how it works: The NCTA issues a call and deadline for technical papers. A couple hundred abstracts come in. The abstracts are vetted by a hand-picked group of tech-siders who know the interesting and relevant from the slick and the wishful. Selected authors are notified, the writing begins, and somehow it all comes together as a CD-ROM and a printed volume by the annual Cable Show. 

As someone who lingers over such tomes, a few tips. One: If a paper is written solely by a vendor, it usually falls into the category of “here’s one plausible way to go about it.” If it’s co-authored by a vendor and an MSO technologist, consider it as one plausible way to go about it that (insert name of MSO) favors. Any sole-MSO dissertation is likely how that operator wants or intends to go about something. 

Note: In this year’s CD edition, the table of contents groups multiple authors into one company byline. For the co-written vendor/MSO papers, you need to click into the paper for full author attribution.

Rarely do papers get in by virtue of clout. If John Malone were to submit an abstract describing an in-home blimp that doubles as a scalp-massager and a wireless femtocell — maybe. But generally, the team of paper picker-outers does a sound job of finding the best of the best. 

I went directly to two papers in this year’s collection, because of who wrote them. First: “A Comparison of PON Architectures,” by Jim Farmer, who knows more about fiber optic and cable architectures than most (understatement). He’s the guy who co-wrote both editions of Cable Television Technology, the undisputed bible of cable reference books. His company, Wave7 Optics, makes fiber-to-the-home gear for small telcos and cable new-builds, so, his thumb is on the pulse of telco optics reality. 

Farmer’s paper details three types of passive optical networks: B-PON (broadband and “approaching end-of-life”), G-PON (Gigabit), and GE-PON (Gigabit Ethernet.) He dips into this whole new “RFOG” thing (RF Over Glass), too.

Next stop: Weidong Mao’s “Building Large VOD Libraries With Next Generation On Demand Architecture.” Mao is a Comcast Fellow, and works in the “Office of the CTO” (which insiders tend to say as a word: “octo.”) His paper describes how Comcast is prepping to offer “regular” VOD, as well as services like Time Warner’s “Start Over,” and over-the-top video.

If you’re on the content side, hankering for technical details about transitioning to MPEG-4 compression, run, don’t walk, to “Systems Overview and Technical Data Results and Analysis from HBO’s Field Test of DVB-S2 and MPEG-4 HD Deployment,” written by HBO’s Andy Levine. It’s 10 pages of everything you didn’t even know you wanted to know. And then some.

Remember IMS? The IP Multimedia Subsystem, which (bizarrely) rocketed its way to the No. 1 position in CED Magazine’s “Broadband 50,” a few years ago? Although I’m not certain I’m entirely clear on his answer, check out “Is IMS the Answer­?” by Cox cross-platform guru Bruce McLeod. It’s a common-sense review of the applicability of IMS in cable.

If you’re into learning about how operators are putting together their big, honkin’, national fiber optic backbones, check out “The Cox National Backbone: Building a Scalable Optical Network for Future Applications and Network Evolution,” by Cox’s Dan Estes and co-author Gaylord Hart, of Infinera. The part about centralized encoding of HD streams, then blasting them around on the glass they own and maintain — clever.

The fact that a paper came in from Microsoft caught my eye — “Dynamic Insertion for Short-Form Video On Demand Advertising.” What also caught my eye, halfway down the first page, was a subhead, “What Atlas Does,” followed by the words “in this paper, we detail a solution” — a solution Microsoft bought when it bought Atlas, two years ago. I stopped reading. Is that wrong? 

Another notable highlight from this year’s submissions: The frequency of the word “economics” in the titles and the bodies of the papers — especially those about mobile video. Much of being an engineer, of course, is being good at costing out trade­offs. This is especially true in the case of mobile.

“Economics” also popped up in this title, written by a gaggle of Cisco-nians: “Unicast Video Without Breaking the Bank: Economics, Strategies, and Architecture.” Translation: How to get it so that your house (and each individual occupant) gets its own, dedicated swath of bandwidth — for less than it costs at the time Cisco wrote the paper.

These are just highlights. The CD is $50. If you’re into a deeper dive, it’s worth every penny. Ditto for the papers from the upcoming Society of Cable Technology Engineers’ Cable Tec-Expo. Don’t take them to the beach, though, or the pool. I’ve tried it. You fall asleep and get weird sunburn marks.

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