Cable-Tec Expo: Comcast's Field: 'We Want to Be the Next Apple'

Tech and Operations Exec Panel Discusses Cable’s Cloud Potential, Bandwidth Growth

Orlando -- Can Comcast, which has a track record of relatively poor customer-satisfaction ratings, deliver technology and services that are as simple, fun and sexy as Apple’s?

That’s a goal for the No. 1 cable operator in America, according to Charlotte Field, Comcast senior vice president of infrastructure and operations, speaking on a panel with three other women senior technology and operations execs here at Cable-Tec Expo.

“We want to be the next Apple,” Field said.

Comcast needs to accelerate its development cycle times, to keep pace with the demand for more features and content across multiple devices, she said.

“We can’t wait two years for new guide to be delivered,” Field said. “We are not doing that because of traditional competition, but because of the competition that’s coming.”

That said, she added, “Any time you introduce something new, you have a subset of people who don’t like it no matter how intuitive it is -- because it’s a change.” But customers generally have been receptive to the new features and applications Comcast has rolled out, she said.

Cable operators are looking to tap into cloud-based approached to introduce and change services more quickly, the panelists said. That would move functions that traditionally have been resident in set-tops into the network.

“Obviously we’re big fans of the cloud,” said Yvette Kanouff, executive vice president of engineering and technology at Cablevision Systems. “Our strategic vision is to say, what would happen if there were no set-top box there?”

Cablevision has deployed network DVR service across much of its New York-area footprint and is looking to move other elements -- including the user interface -- into the cloud, Kanouff said.

Cablevision showed HTML5 running on Samsung and LG TVs at the 2012 Cable Show, Kanouff noted. “We want to separate the set-top functionality and performance from the user experience but we are not quite there yet,” she said.

The MSO recently began deploying “Onyx,” the internal code name of its next-generation guide originally designed for TV viewing on tablets and PCs, on set-tops in the Long Island area. “For us, for Cablevision, the user experience and interface is very important,” she said. With Onyx (formally called the Optimum Program Guide) on set-top boxes, “you have a common look and feel across all your devices.

Bright House Networks president Nomi Bergman said delivering the guide from the cloud also promises to reduce costs.

“It’s been incredibly cumbersome on our operations to support new releases [on set-tops],” she said.

With more services being delivered from the cloud, the headend is going to transform, with some elements moving to a central data center, Field said. Operators may have a master headend, with caches at the edges: “You have lots of clouds,” she said.

Carol Hevey, executive vice president for Time Warner Cable’s East Region, said moving to larger headends that serve a larger footprint lets the operator deliver consistent experience to all our customers. “The customer knows, no matter where they are, they will have a consistent experience with our products,” she said.

With Internet bandwidth demand continuing to rise in the neighborhood of 50% annually, several of the operators have expansion plans set for next year and beyond.

Cablevision is looking at increasing the number of downstream DOCSIS channels in its systems from five to eight, Kanouff said, but said that channel bonding alone is just one tool in the toolbox to manage capacity. “We have so many opportunities on where we can go,” she said. “It’s not one thing that will get us there.”

Bright House, for its part, currently runs four downstream DOCSIS channels and expects to add two more next year and two more in 2014, Bergman said. On the upstream, Bright House bonds four channels upstream today.

The forthcoming DOCSIS 3.1 specification, which will be a topic of discussion at a session Thursday at Cable-Tec Expo, will give MSOs new flexibility and optimize modulation techniques particularly in the upstream, Bergman noted.

For Field, the big question is the transition path for DOCSIS 3.1, but said the development will extend “the possibilities of what we can do within our plant.”

The panel was moderated by Multichannel News columnist Leslie Ellis.

Ellis kicked off what she called the “girl-power panel” by asking how many IP-based devices each of the panelists has in their home. Comcast, she noted, expects that by 2015 the average U.S. household will have six things that connect to IP (Ellis, who’s married to a Time Warner Cable engineer and has built a home over-the-top video lab, has 51.)

The tally: Field counted 42; Hevey had 32; and Kanouff and Bergman both reported 27. Ellis, a beekeeper, awarded Field a jar of honey from her own beehive as the winner.