IP Voice Calls at Western, But Ops Will Hold the Line

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One might have had a hard time finding a programmer at this year's Western Cable Show at the newly refurbished Anaheim Convention Center, but it was easy to dial into technology.

The show floor — which looked more like a pumped up Society of Cable and Telecommunications Engineers gathering — was populated by providers hawking new voice-enabled modems and control systems that use the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 1.1 cable-modem standard, which adds quality-of-service and traffic prioritization features.

Most were also showing off modems that meet the preliminary PacketCable specifications for device interoperability.

But while several vendors said they had healthy interest in their DOCSIS 1.1 products, most are still predicting major Internet-protocol telephony rollouts won't happen until 2003.

And Comcast Corp. cable unit president Steven Burke made some comments at a UBS Warburg conference last week that seemed to bear that out. Burke told analysts that the Philadelphia-based MSO would possibly look at IP telephony after it finishes rolling out video-on-demand, in 12 or 18 months. That delay would help to solidify IP-telephony technology, said Burke, making it "more real than it is today" — in fact, rendering it "ready for primetime."

At the Western Show there were plenty of IP products in evidence. Terayon Communication Systems Inc. was part of the drive to give modems a voice with its new TA 102 media-terminal adapter.

The TA 102 combines a voice terminal with cable-modem capabilities. Compliant with DOCSIS 1.1 and PacketCable specifications — and with the added advanced physical layer capabilities outlined in the pending DOCSIS 2.0 specification — the unit can be used for either primary- or secondary-line IP phone service.

LEERY, BUT INTERESTED

Many cable operators are still somewhat uncertain about IP telephony's reliability, but most are interested in the cost savings versus switched telephony — and looking for devices to start testing, according to Terayon vice president of voice solutions Ed Miller.

"It's a chicken-and-egg problem," he said. "The operators say we need to see products, and the vendors say we need to see the market. So development has been a little slow."

To that end, Miller said the TA 102 is just the first in a family of voice-terminal adapters. Terayon already has a prototype four-line outdoor unit based on the same scheme.

Imedia Semiconductor — Terayon's semiconductor subsidiary — came to the show, in part, to establish itself as a seller of silicon to other equipment vendors. Its main product is a cable-modem chip that integrates the upcoming DOCSIS 2.0 advanced physical layer technology.

That would give the fledgling unit a 12- to 18-month advantage over its competitors, including silicon giant Broadcom Corp., said Imedia vice president of marketing Kishore Manghnani.

That lured in a handful of interested modem vendors at the show.

"Some customers are just finalizing their plans for 2.0," Manghnani said. "We will have customers by the middle of 2002."

Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. featured its newest voice-over-IP modem at its booth. The PCX3000 — which is also DOCSIS 1.1 and PacketCable compliant — features two phone ports, as well as Ethernet and USB connections.

That vendor has also found operators to be wary but interested with respect to voice-over-IP.

"A number are looking at it or have trials in process," said Toshiba network-products division vice president and general manager Fred Berry. "I think we are about there. I think we will see in 2002 some revenue-generating voice products."

Toshiba also was busy demonstrating its upcoming PCX5000 modem, which adds wireless capabilities based on the 802.11b standard. Set to ship sometime in the first quarter — after it finishes Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s current DOCSIS 1.1 certification round — the unit has an embedded cable modem, four wired ports and the wireless connection.

Although it's designed as a retail product, MSOs are looking at wireless cable-modem routers like the PCX5000 for the small office and home office market.

Scientific-Atlanta Inc., which recently re-entered the cable modem hunt, also pulled the wraps off a voice-over-IP modem. The WebSTAR DPX200 has an embedded media terminal adapter that sports two phone ports, as well as Universal Serial Bus (USB) and Ethernet data ports. It will be commercially available early next year.

As with other vendors, S-A doesn't expect IP telephony to blaze out of the gate. That's partly because operators are still waiting for finalized PacketCable specifications, but also because they've focused their immediate energies on video-on-demand.

There have also been some notable IP telephony setbacks, including trials recently abandoned by Canada's Le Groupe Vidéotron Ltee. and Cogeco Cable Inc.

"I think their collective energy to focus on telephony is lower in the queue," said S-A vice president of network architectures Paul Connolly.

START-UPS GET NOTICED

While such established vendors gained plenty of booth visits, several notable start-ups managed to generate interest.

Corisma came to the show with a cable modem and termination system product aimed at small to midsized operators. What sets the company's cable modem apart from the pack is that it has no resident central processing unit — instead, it uses the processor in the computer it's attached to drive the DOCSIS functions.

On the controller side, startup CedarPoint Communications was gaining buzz with its cable media switching system for IP telephony based on the PacketCable interoperability specifications. The company gained a big boost recently when Comcast Communications Inc. announced it would begin trialing the unit.

Core Networks Inc., meanwhile, pulled the wrapper off its CoreOS 4.0 network management system specifically geared to support DOCSIS 1.1 devices. CEO Jeff Campbell said the new product fits the demand for DOCSIS 1.1 — even if cablers aren't entirely sure when they will implement its features.

"It's going to take upwards of a year before we see DOCSIS 1.1 in any significant deployment," he said.

The lingering doubts about IP have operators asking network gear giant Cisco Systems Inc. for voice systems that can start out as switched and evolve into IP. While customers may be hesitating in the short-term, they often don't have to be sold on Cisco's long-term IP mantra.

"Now I listen to customers and they are preaching it back to us," said John Mattson, director of marketing for Cisco's cable group. "Now it is not a matter of if, but when and how."

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