Several new shifts promise to make the technology side of
this week's National Show in Atlanta an eye-opener.
At the same time, watch for this week's show to mark the
starting point in the cable product cycle when technology hands off the broadband baton to
"I think you'll see a groundswell of programmer
activity around digital video, and not just a few advocates," said Dan Pike, vice
president of science and technology for Prime Cable, who added, "We've been watching
for it to happen."
What's hot? Digital set-tops showing enhanced services,
like e-mail and Internet access will be front and center in many manufacturers' booths.
General Instrument Corp., for one, is planning to debut a prototype of its DCT-5000
set-top, scheduled to become commercially available next year.
GI already holds an order for 15 million DCT-5000 boxes
from a consortium of MSOs, and is planning to focus on new applications that will ride on
that box, said David Robinson, vice president and general manager of GI's Digital Video
"This will be our first public demonstration of the
DCT-5000, and some of the applications possible with it," Robinson said.
Scientific-Atlanta Inc. will also shine the spotlight on
its digital-video solution, the Explorer 2000, which is scheduled to ship to 30
undisclosed metro markets this year, said company CEO James McDonald.
"I think [show attendees] will see a whole focus on
networks, products, and software that runs on top of those -- how analog and digital work
together," he said. McDonald described this year's event as "one with more
transitions than we've ever seen in the past, from analog to digital, and from hardware to
Also hot: Video-on-demand all over again, this time with at
least six vendors showing ways to deliver movies and other content to subscriber TVs.
Suppliers like Diva Systems Inc., Intertainer Inc., S-A/SeaChange International Inc. and
others will describe why VOD is back -- because equipment costs have plummeted and
standards are available.
Cable executives said they'll be carefully absorbing the
VOD resurgence at the National Show. "There are at least six VOD companies planning
to go to Atlanta that I know of," said Ralph Brown, senior software engineer,
advanced engineering for Time Warner Cable. Brown said he'll also be keeping a sharp eye
on what's described as "affordable" by VOD server manufacturers.
"The measuring stick for cost efficiency is different
for a cable company than it is for a server vendor," he said. "For a server
vendor, the cost per stream is for the bit stream that comes out. For a cable operator, we
have to figure in other elements along the line, like the QAM (quadrature amplitude mode)
modulators, and everything else."
Another likely buzz magnet: anything based on Internet
protocol. While most cable executives said that the real IP momentum will pick up in
future months, they also said their show-floor strolls will include more than a casual
search for ways to move IP-based phone calls, entertainment and data into the home over
"I think we'll start to see the shift from hardware to
software" at this week's show, said Dave Fellows, an engineering consultant to
MediaOne who was, until last month, its senior vice president of engineering. "I'll
be looking for signs of that shift -- companies that are thinking of services that take
advantage of our networks."
"I'd be thrilled to find service providers that are
actually going to start delivering applications that can be put on this platform, outside
of the baseline services we already have," echoed Steve Craddock, vice president of
new media for Comcast Corp.
While important, but decidedly not as hot, watch for more
announcements from cable modem vendors saying they're pursuing wares that comply with the
standard known as DOCSIS, for Data Over Cable Service/Interoperability Specification.
Cable Television Laboratories Inc. will host an
interoperability staging demo in Atlanta, with "north of a dozen" participating
vendors, Fellows said.
"What you saw out at the Western Show (in December)
were little clumps of manufacturers working here and there," he said. "At NCTA,
it'll be more inclusive and less clumpy."
Cable modem vendors are also expected to discuss their
methods to establish links with retailers, in anticipation of a finalized DOCSIS
environment later this year. MSOs view that shift as critical to moving the $250 to $500
modems off their balance sheets. Many will partially base their DOCSIS purchase orders on
their confidence in the retail migration plans of their suppliers.
In the interim, while MSOs are still on the hook to buy
cable modems, "I want to see continued progress on price," said Tim Evard,
president of Time Warner's Road Runner data service.
The cable modem suppliers are also expected to jostle for
competitive position at the show by detailing the ways in which they'll differentiate
themselves. The most common refrain will likely be added-feature sets based on
"quality of service" parameters set forth in DOCSIS, so that operators can offer
things like guaranteed data rates to customers who want to pay a bit more per month.
On the network transmission side, Antec Corp. and Harmonic
Lightwaves will separately use the National Show as the first, public debut of their
solution, originally developed for Tele-Communications Inc., to jam multiple colors of
light together on a single strand of fiber optic cable.
The technique, known as dense-wave-division multiplexing
(DWDM), is viewed by TCI and others as a great new way to squeeze more capacity out of
existing fiber while dramatically shaving electronics maintenance costs.