He Stuck to Basics

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As Comcast Corp. aims to finish the rebuild of former AT&T Broadband systems in 2004 — nearly two years ahead of schedule — it's also looking towards the next items on its technology wish list.

Among those initiatives: tying together various regional and metro networks, expanding voice-over-Internet protocol telephony trials and continuing to plan for an all-digital network.

The speed with which Comcast's cable unit has been able to rebuild AT&T's plant has brought smiles all around the MSO, because it allowed for a quicker-than-anticipated turnaround in basic subscriber losses.

"There have been surprisingly few surprises," David Fellows, executive vice president and chief technology officer, said in an interview.

But Fellows noted that Comcast entered the rebuild process with relatively low expectations — which helped minimize downside surprises.

Stuck with basics

Fellows also said Comcast didn't overanalyze what was needed during the rebuild, and went with the basics.

"We built fiber to 660 home-pockets," he said. "What service can't you launch on that? None. No debate, no thinking, don't think too much, just go and do, execute. In a sense, it's just simplified things."

The timing couldn't have been better, because most MSOs had finished their upgrades.

"We basically had all the crews in the country at our proposal," he said. "And we got good pricing on equipment."

The rebuild will be nearly finished by mid-2004, compared to the earlier target date of 2006. And as a sign of the times, Fellows said the rebuild budget for Comcast's 5.2 million subscriber Eastern Division in 2004 is $0 — not a typical number an MSO sees on its balance sheet for a key cluster.

With the rebuild complete, "we're turning our attention to the next layer of the network," Fellows said.

Comcast employs a four-layer network that starts with the hybrid fiber-coaxial plant in the last mile, he noted.

The next level is the system-wide layer, where Comcast ties all the fiber hubs together across a single market.

The third layer ties markets together on a regional basis. For instance, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Jersey are tied together in a regional network, and Comcast plans more of those in the future.

The last layer is a national one. At the moment, Comcast is outsourcing backbone capacity from AT&T.

Comcast will next extend its Coatesville, Pa., rollout of voice-over-Internet protocol telephony to the entire Philadelphia market, Fellows said. It also will launch VoIP in two other regions.

"We'll take a handful of locations, and go very deep vertically, and make sure that all the systems work," he said.

One of the two locations will be a market in which circuit-switched telephony has already been launched.

"They know how to sell and provision, but it will be a different technology," he said. VoIP will launch in the greenfield areas that surround the circuit-switch deployment.

"We'll isolate technology things that are different from the service and marketing and other variables," Fellows said.

Fellows plans to mix and match vendors. "My hope is that we will try two different softswitch vendors amongst the three locations," he said. "We'll try a couple of carrier-class [cable-modem termination systems]. We had Arris [Group Inc.] in Coatesville, and we'd like to include one other one.

"We will also mix up MTAs," or multimedia terminal adapters, a standalone piece of customer premise equipment that can be connected to any access device to deliver voice over a broadband network.

'Cool savings'

Launching VoIP on a data platform is not that costly "because so much of the infrastructure is shared," noted Fellows "The CMTS is going to be shared with the high-speed business."

An MTA may cost $100, but Comcast would be paying $40 to $50 for a cable modem anyway, he said.

"Those are all cool, up-front capital savings," he continued. "I'm sharing the MTA with the data business and CMTS also. With a Class 5 switch, I've got a set of routers I'm sharing with the data business. I do have the softswitch cost, but that's tens of dollars per line, and everything else is shared and incremental."

Comcast will also enjoy some operational savings.

"There will be a common provisional network," said Fellows. "The identity of the IP address comes out of the same infrastructure."

The costs of the initial VoIP rollouts will be handled by corporate, he added.

Fellows also emphasizes that VoIP means more than just traditional telephony service, ticking off the list of other services it could enable: video telephony, cordless telephony, call forwarding and layered gaming services, for instance.

All the work on VoIP in 2004 presages the ability for a wide-scale launch in 2005, he said.

Other advancements, such as Gigabit Ethernet technology, help Comcast manage the bandwidth issues related to launching new video, voice and data services.

"We will have reliability for voice and the cost per bit that video needs to see," Fellows said.

But wild cards still exist.

No one is exactly sure of the direction that peer-to-peer Internet file sharing will take over the next few years, Fellows said.

"We're going to build [the network] and if we misjudge, we'll build more. But we're going to try not to overbuild it so we don't go broke on the way to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," said Fellows.

$35 Box quest

Comcast continues work on long-term plans for an all-digital network, which would require a low-cost $35 converter to be placed on existing analog TV sets in Comcast homes.

An interesting turn of events has occurred over the past few months: In addition to talking to traditional set-top vendors about such a box, Comcast is also talking to cable-modem manufacturers, Fellows said.

"They've got the right price point, the right interactivity, the right two-way and they kind of have some form of encryption," he said. "It's not quite conditional access, but it's a start. You can add some MPEG [Moving Picture Experts Group] decompression and you've got yourself a set-top box."

"We want to stake out a leadership decision on the $35 box," he said. "We want to bring the industry along. If we come up with a $35 box vision, we would love it if other MSOs shared in that vision."

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