Cable's technology leaders continue to focus on make-do, rather than breakthrough.
That sentiment was evident at the Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s March 13 media briefing in Denver, where members of the cable technology consortium provided updates on key projects ranging from cable modems to digital video. Indeed, the overriding theme was building on well-established cable technology to deliver the next generation of services.
Even as cable-modem deployments gain momentum, CableLabs is still busy tweaking the machinery inside the Data Over Cable Services Interface Specification engine.
The newest specification is DOCSIS 2.0, which promises to offer up to 30 megabits per second upstream from the user to the plant and cut interference problems. That should open the door for enterprise symmetrical data services and peer-to-peer file sharing.
"Our networks are becoming more symmetrical — peer-to-peer services are driving upstream capacity," said Dave Fellows, AT&T's Broadband chief technology officer and chairman of the DOCSIS certification board. "There is also voice and a need there to provide symmetric service, and we have small business services."
CableLabs has gathered between 35 to 50 companies to work on the test plan for DOCSIS 2.0, and interoperability events will continue this spring. Interoperability tests began last fall, and the first certification round is tentatively set for the third quarter.
One of the offshoots to emerge from the interoperability tests is computer-controlled cable modems, which will integrate modem functions with the resident computer's processor unit. That could lower the consumer cost of cable modems from an average of $130 to about $50.
On the deployment front, DOCSIS 1.1 is coming into focus, offering quality of service and data prioritization elements not included in the 1.0 specification.
According to Fellows, DOCSIS 1.1 systems will be "all over the place" in AT&T Broadband territory by the end of 2003.
But recent modem deals haven't included the current handful of 1.1-certified modems. Instead, operators have opted to use 1.0 modems that can be upgraded.
Fellows said that wasn't a matter of concern. "You can rest assured that the contracts that we have for purchasing modems and have had for over a year all put the onus on the manufacturer to guarantee that this box is upgradeable to 1.1," he said. "We have now had two waves with products certified — if they were not in those two waves that made it through, I'm not panicking."
Building on the DOCSIS technology, CableLabs is working on several new additions for its PacketCable specification. PacketCable is geared toward providing management tools for Internet-protocol services, including voice and eventually streaming-media and gaming services.
PacketCable 1.0 is in certification testing now, even as versions 1.1 through 1.3 are beginning interoperability trials.
The newest member of the specification family is PacketCable Multimedia. Still in the draft stage, the standard will be applied to multimedia files including video and audio. The standard is a streamlined version of PacketCable — eliminating some of the voice-centric call management elements but keeping low signal delay tools and bandwidth controls.
That will help operators add services to the existing DOCSIS plant.
"I think that video chat is going to be a really interesting thing, and I think video chat integrated with a game service is something that my son would absolutely like," said Comcast Corp. senior vice president of strategic planning Mark Coblitz. The business model has not yet been forged, "but we have the underpinnings in the platform to make those two things happen together and do so in a quality way," he added.
Meanwhile, the CableHome project, designed to drive standards for cable-based home-networking products, is making considerable progress.
CableHome 1.0 specifications should be completed by April 5, according to Rouzbeh Yassini, senior executive consultant at CableLabs. "The spec is coming together very nicely," he said.
The 200-page specification has drawn a considerable amount of questions. Of the 40 or so vendors that have entered the process, CableLabs and four undisclosed home-networking manufacturers are hammering out the spec.
Interoperability tests are planned for the second quarter this year, with certification planned for the third quarter.
The business applications include managed firewalls, virus protection, intercom and paging services, home monitoring and streaming media and entertainment, said Yassini.
According to CableLabs vice president of advanced platforms and services Don Dulchinos, OpenCable specifications have been completed. The focus has now turned to OCAP (OpenCable Applications Platform), the standard's applications layer.
"The key thing is to separate the conditional access and the encryption via point of deployment security modules," Dulchinos said. "You could have different set-top boxes and middleware, but all the services [running on them] would share common OCAP specs."
OCAP 1.0 offers the ability to handle Java applications, guides and simple gaming applications. Advanced boxes like Motorola's DCT 2500 and Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 3100 can handle OCAP 1.0 applications.
OCAP 2.0 specifications are due out in another month, Dulchinos said. The next generation will address Web benefits, as well as browser and synced-TV applications.
CableLabs also said its Go2Broadband Web site, which helps consumers find their local cable broadband provider, "has been a very successful e-commerce effort," according to chief technology officer and senior vice president of strategic David Reed.
The site averages between 400,000 and 500,000 hits per month. MSO executives at the briefing said between 5 percent and 10 percent of those requests result in eventual high-speed data subscriptions.
Next up for Go2Broadband: offering multiple services, such as video and telephony information exchange, and software to support consumers who move from one home to another.