NCTA Tech Papers: Best in Show


One of the more tangible traits amongst cable engineers is their knack for identifying critical trade-offs. This usually involves reaching both arms deep into the goo of the new stuff, and plucking out the big components — of cost, strategic importance or both.

Finding relevant trade-offs, in turn, helps finance people to build cost models, helps marketing people figure out how to make service bundles and so on.

A consistently rich source of trade-off talk is the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s annual compilation of technical papers. If you’re into immersion learning, it’s a defensible way to spend $50.

Be forewarned, though: It’s advanced-class stuff, packed with particulars. Remember that it’s the trade-offs that matter.

It’s also an annual practice for this column to highlight the one or two standout papers in the bunch. This year, though, 11 made it into the “Hmmph! Interesting!” pile. From those, seven stood out as must-reads. They are (briefly!) encapsulated here.

Because it stops a few inches short of being an official announcement that Comcast will become a service bureau to help small operators handle separable security and the OpenCable Applications Platform, we’ll start with the paper written by the Comcast Media Center’s Gary Traver and James Capps.

Their thinking: It’s crazy-expensive to be a small operator getting ready for set-tops and TVs with separable security and OCAP.

By pooling resources, small systems attached to a centralized service bureau can move (and spend) like a single, large installation of equipment and applications, the authors propose.

Next is a 20-plus-page, deep-dive treatise on the trade-offs between WiMax and fixed-line broadband technologies, written by Comcast CTO Tony Werner and his former colleague, Tim Burke, VP of strategic technology for Liberty Global.

It’s hard to jump-cut to the end of this one — pretty much anything you ever wondered about WiMax is answered within. WiMax is flexible, but complicated; it can be optimized for capacity or coverage. Don’t believe everything you hear about WiMax speeds; learn why by reading the paper.

Bottom line: WiMax is good for dense markets, where no competitors offer broadband services faster than 3 Megabits per second downstream, 256 Kilobits per second upstream.

“Making FTTH Compatible with HFC,” written by Jim Farmer of Wave7 Optics. In it, he makes a case for taking fiber all the way to homes, in all new build/green field situations. He also explains how fiber-to-the-home is different than traditional hybrid fiber coax architectures.

Wondering how advanced video compression will fit into the near-term landscape? Check out two papers: “The Future of Transcoding — the Need for MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 to Coexist,” from EGT Inc., and “Switched Unicast via Edge Statistical Multiplexing,” by Imagine Communications’ Ron Gutman.

The former talks about the trade-offs between today’s compression method (MPEG-2), and tomorrow’s technique (MPEG-4). The latter describes a technique known as “variable bit rate” encoding, which is sort of like compression “for the ride” (during transmission).

And, of course, there’s the inevitable dose of IPTV-talk. This year, that topic comes from Big Band Networks — a bit of an eyebrow-lifter on its own, because the company is mostly known for its work in digital video switching, within the “traditional,” MPEG-based transmission network.

Last but not least: “The Bright Side of DRM: New Business Opportunities,” written by HBO’s Bob Zitter and Craig Cuttner. In a short-and-sweet 3.5 pages, the authors propose that we all stop looking at digital-rights management as a barrier, and view it as an enabler.

That’s the real-short on this year’s NCTA Tech Papers. To get your own copy, go to

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis