CTOs: All-Digital Shift Will Be Gradual

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Cable’s top engineers agreed the shift to an all-digital network is inevitable, but at the National Show last week, they debated how soon the transition would happen — and the form such a network might take.

“Over the next the next half a decade or so, it has to happen,” said Comcast Corp. chief technology officer David Fellows, who said cable operators will need the bandwidth for HDTV, VOD and to deliver higher bitrates to the home.

Cox Communications Inc. senior vice president of engineering and CTO Chris Bowick agreed. “The key word is migration,” Bowick noted. “You have to define all-digital.

“Is it all digital-products or an all-digital network? Do we eliminate analog programming or do we have a subset for foreseeable future?”

Bowick seemed to come down on the side of a gradual migration. “We have a strong additional-outlet strategy,” he noted.

A slow timeframe also seemed likely to Time Warner Cable CTO Michael LaJoie. “We will have all digital devices and all digital tiering as we migrate toward an all-digital network,” he said.

The consumer-electronics industry is a key factor here, LaJoie added. “When do they stop selling analog TV sets? When do the broadcasters go to all-digital broadcast?”

Those two issues will affect the timing of cable’s DTV transition, he said.

LaJoie pointed out that the all digital transition began 15 years ago, with new digital networks and the launch of digital direct-broadcast satellite platforms.

“When I talk all-digital, all services will be available in digital format,” Fellows said. “It doesn’t mean there is no analog signal present. Analog may stay on for some time.”

DBS companies have made digital signals a marketing issue, Bowick said.

“There is the perception that digital is better,” he said.

But digital will have other benefits. “You could see some significant cost savings as a result of this,” Bowick added. “Operationally, as we move to digital, we have found advantages in operating equipment and providing stronger service.”

Cable’s top engineers also surveyed the current and future new-services landscape. Noting that digital video recorders have enjoyed a quick uptake rate, LaJoie predicted the natural extension would be multiroom DVRs, “something people will like quite a bit.”

Looking ahead, LaJoie talked about portable video players. “It’s going to be a pretty compelling product” once the digital rights-management issues have been sorted out, he said.

“The key will be making this all seamless to the customer,” said Bowick, listing new features like customer caller ID on the TV and voicemail via high-speed email, and vice versa.

Some cable operators have begun tiering high-speed data services. Cox offers a 128 kilobit upstream and downstream service, along with its 3 megabits down and 256 kilobits upstream, plus a 4 megabit downstream and 384 kilobits upstream.

“It’s technically not really difficult to do,” Bowick said.

Cannibalization was a concern, but Bowick said Cox has seen about the same number of customers going to the lower tier as those who chose the higher speed. “There is not a lot of migration,” he said. “We use the low end tier as a save tool and that’s worked out very well.”

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