Comcast’s Tech Pitch to Street

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Top Comcast Corp. engineering executives provided a sweeping overview of the MSO’s technological initiatives — including a connected national backbone, reference designs for future set-top boxes, channel bonding and digital simulcast — during a lengthy briefing for analysts on May 10.

The message for Wall Street: Comcast is building a platform not only to match the competition but provide services that exceed what others can do. Think, for example, 100-Mbps high-speed Internet access.

Over the past several years, Comcast has been moving more and more services to its Internet protocol platform, paving the way for such innovations, said chief technology officer David Fellows.

Having one infrastructure also helps with cost control and bundling of services, such as voice and advanced Internet applications.

BACKBONE UNDER WAY

Through its deal with Level 3 Communications Inc., Comcast is building a nationwide 10-gigabit backbone. The Boston to Washington, D.C., link has already been activated, Fellows said. And the Philadelphia to Boston link has been upgraded to 40 Gbps. “It’s wicked fast,” Fellows said.

Comcast also is working towards deployment of Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0, which will allow the MSO to bundle 6-MH channels together to supply higher speed data services, as high as 100 Mbps or more.

Fellows said Comcast has created a middleware/operational support systems layer, called Bedrock, that brings together back office capabilities. It includes a Global Directory System, with entitlement information about all subscribers and their respective service levels for video, voice and data services. Bedrock also helps power Comcast’s instant-messaging system to customers and provides unified provisioning for voice and data services, he said.

Fellows said Comcast also plans to roll out session initiation protocol (SIP) phone services alongside PacketCable-based voice-over-IP service. SIP will allow the MSO to offer video instant messaging and video phone service.

“They will work together to provide a better platform than any of our competitors,” he said.

The MSO also is aggressively rolling out digital simulcast, replicating analog channels on digital so digital subscribers only see digital pictures.

“Digital simulcast is the first step towards all digital,” Fellows said, and it’s being rolled out in Comcast systems this year. “We get digital quality, cost reductions in set-tops, delivery of on demand more broadly and enhanced packaging flexibility.”

The day Comcast can go all digital, it will effectively triple its capacity, as two-thirds of the transport plant is dedicated to analog signals, he said.

Stephen Silva, executive vice president of business development at Comcast Cable Communications Inc., discussed a core reference design for future digital set-top boxes. “We’re going from buyer to builder,” he said.

Discussing the MSO’s digital gateway program, Silva outlined three Motorola Inc. set-tops. The RG 100 is a basic level set-top box. The RG 218 is a dual-tuner digital video recorder, while the RG 1000 is the soup-to-nuts set-top designed for whole house connectivity.

Mark Hess, senior vice president of digital television at Comcast, said all three boxes will have enough memory and processing power to handle OpenCable Applications Platform applications functions, as well as DOCSIS modems that will be used as the signaling return path.

It’s contemplated all three boxes will be capable of managing downloadable security functions. The two advanced boxes will have advanced codec capabilities.

Silva said Comcast has 60 visiting engineers — including ones from other MSOs — in its labs to work on the digital gateway. Final specifications should be done this year.

INNOVATION PLATFORM

“We’ve started to create a platform for innovation,” Silva said, starting with the set-top. The top of the setup will run conditional access, firmware and set-top box instruction software.

Silva said the Motorola joint venture — including the conditional-access licensing program and the support and development program — addresses that layer. Comcast owns 51% of the conditional-access layer program and will license DigiCipher to the industry.

The support program is a 50-50 joint venture that will support third party set-top makers and develop CableCARDs and downloadable security, Silva said.

The next layer in the design is the OCAP/middleware stack. Silva said 130 engineers from Double C Technologies, the joint venture with Cox Communications Inc. that bought Liberate Technologies assets, are working on OCAP applications and extensions.

Comcast’s GuideWorks joint venture with TV Guide-Gemstar International Inc. is handling the next layer, the user interface/navigation layer, riding just below the top application layer, he said.

The end result, he said, “is a powerful stack for the set-top box.”

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