Maximum Spectrum

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Cox Communications' technology team has nearly finished building out the highest-capacity coaxial cable infrastructure of any major U.S. operator, running at 1 Gigahertz across about 86,000 miles of plant.

There's no rest for the weary.

Now, the company is getting ready to tap into a different kind of spectrum — the wireless variety. Cox is putting in place systems and networks to deliver business-class 3G wireless Internet and data services, a project that includes plans to erect its own radio towers in some markets. The operator wants to give the likes of AT&T and Verizon Wireless a run for their mobile money.

“We can bring the four-product experience together in a way that's unique,” said Cox executive vice president and chief technology officer Scott Hatfield. “Fundamentally, it has to work, and it has to work intelligently.”

As with other parts of its business, the fact that Cox is privately held has given it greater flexibility in developing a long-term technology strategy.

In the last 10 years, Cox CEO Patrick Esser said, the operator has invested $16 billion in network infrastructure — “and we continue to spend at a pretty good rate.” For the sake of comparison, he said, Cox will probably end up spending more overall on the 1-GHz rebuild, a project designed to ensure ample bandwidth into the next decade, than it will on the wireless buildout.

In Esser's thinking, wireless will be an extension of Cox's wired coaxial network, a “wireless overlay for the last mile.” The cable company will handle the delivery of voice, data or video across whichever network is best suited for the task.

“We want to move communications services across networks for you. It should not be a headache that you sit and think about,” he said.

That “network-agnostic” philosophy of delivering services in an integrated fashion is reflected in Cox's recent reorganization combining the cable-engineering group — historically responsible for the delivery of services to customers — with the internal-facing information-technology group, which supports Cox's call centers, billing and other business operations.

Hatfield, formerly Cox's chief information officer, took over management of the consolidated technology group in December 2008. He officially assumed the CTO spot in June, with the retirement of Chris Bowick, the longtime cable technologist who initiated the Extendable Optical Network (EON) project centered on the 1-GHz upgrade.

“We didn't just glue together [information technology] and engineering,” Hatfield said. “We felt we needed to integrate those more effectively.”

In planning for the wireless service, for example, Cox's combined technology team concluded the operator needed a new business and operations support system, referred to as a “BSS/OSS” in industry shorthand, to handle the real-time usage tracking required for wireless billing. The technology group produced a request for proposal and ended up selecting Oracle's BSS/OSS solution.

“How people either get projects right or wrong, how you manage vendors, deal with obsolescence — the issues are the same whether you're talking about an IT or engineering organization,” Hatfield said.

Jay Rolls, senior vice president of technology architecture, said approaching the wireless launch from a services standpoint is helping Cox to avoid reinventing the wheel. For example, the operator is able to use elements that are already in place for wireline telephony, such as connections to emergency services and long-distance minutes bought in bulk.

“Looking back when we got into phone in 1997, that felt way more intimidating than getting into wireless does now,” Rolls said.

Cox, of course, is still very much a cable company in the literal sense.

The operator has upgraded 86,000 miles out of 107,000 miles of network plant to 1 GHz, and plans to reach another 8,000 in 2010. That gives systems an additional 140 to 250 MHz of bandwidth to work with, or enough room for the equivalent of at least 46 high-definition TV channels.

“The most valuable asset we own is the last mile into the home,” Esser said. “Nothing can outperform it.”

The operator has yet to exploit the bandwidth above 860 MHz, according to Rolls. One of the reasons is that tapping into the spectrum requires new customer-side equipment, such as cable modems and set-top boxes that can tune up to 1 GHz. Still, he said: “Our history has been that doing bandwidth expansions was the gift that keeps on giving. We've never regretted an upgrade.”

A key service Cox is considering putting above 860 MHz is DOCSIS 3.0. The next-generation modem technology provides downloads of 160 Megabits per second downstream and even faster. That will let the MSO keep pace with ultra-fast fiber-to-the-home services, such as Verizon's FiOS, as well as evolve its standard broadband tier to well above 10 Mbps.

“DOCSIS 3.0 again puts us in the position to be the leader in our markets for a good time to come,” Esser said.

Along with the 1-GHz expansion, Cox has used several techniques to manage its hybrid fiber-coaxial bandwidth, including switched digital video and node splits. One area it hasn't aggressively attacked is analog reclamation: retiring bandwidth-intensive analog video signals to deliver channels only in digital format.

Even using relatively low-cost digital-to-analog adapters, a wholesale elimination of analog channels “is a big customer disruption,” Esser said. “Our road map is working well for us. It does not mean that I won't go all digital — it just means we have other tools in the toolbox.”

At the same time, Cox is investing in enhancing its core digital video product. It has steadily ratcheted up the HD channel count across all its systems. This fall, Cox hopes to offer on-demand access to 100 time-shifted TV shows from more than 20 networks through its MyPrimetime service.

The company also is in the latter stages of a major overhaul to its interactive program guide. The Simple Consistent Intuitive Navigation (or SCIN, pronounced “skin”) project kicked off in 2005 and is now in field trials. The new IPG, developed with NDS Group, provides a streamlined way to access channels, program information and VOD, and includes extra features such as letting subscribers browse related content.

“The design mantra was, 'Look, people just want to watch TV,' ” said Lisa Pickelsimer, executive director of video product development.

And the TV side of the house is thinking wireless, too, with plans to weave elements of SCIN into mobile phones, said Steve Necessary, vice president of video product development and management.

“We've developed guides for the TV and the PC, and when we launch wireless there will be increasing commonality across those screens,” Necessary said.