In these days of hyper-competition on all fronts of the multichannel-TV industry, technology truly rules. Bigger broadband, better video, more mobility and continuous improvement are key. Only the strong will survive. Ahead of the annual SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, Multichannel News technology analyst Leslie Ellis checked in with three top chief technology officers — Cox Communications’s Kevin Hart, Liberty Global’s Balan Nair and Comcast’s Tony Werner — on such timely topics as industry consolidation, capacity expansion and what it takes to move at “Web speed,” like cable’s new over-the-top competitors. They also drilled into chewy tech trends like wireless and LTE-Unlicensed, the “Gigabuzz-o-rama,” the Reference Design Kit (RDK) and, of course, DOCSIS 3.1. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: Merger-itaville! Consolidation is happening in a very big way this year. To what extent is it impacting your technical and engineering life/work?
Kevin Hart: Navigating the shifting waters around our vendor-supplier ecosystems — that probably has me thinking a little longer. In the short term, there can be implications: Perhaps they lose focus on product support or on backing up programs that are in place. As we continue to say, Cox is not for sale. But there are definite implications on how we think and operate. You’ll see additional partnering opportunities that we’ll pursue to leverage scale from a product standpoint.
Balan Nair: Scale is important in our business. We need it to be competitive; it brings great opportunities in our ability to do big things. Remember, we’re up against companies with global reach, with much larger balance sheets. Innovation and keeping up in product development and consumer behavioral changes are getting more complicated and more capital-intensive.
MCN: A lot of good stuff is happening behind the scenes these days that’s all about finding and fixing problems before they reach customers. What’s your favorite customer-care tool these days?
KH: We have multiple roadmaps around this. One example is a tool where we’ve leveraged Agile [methodologies] — Home View. It’s an internal tool, currently, that lets us see the performance and QoS [quality of service] of set-top boxes, modems and end devices within the home. From that, we can provide better self-care by feeding some aspects of the internal Home View app into [subscribers’] “My Account” view, or enable a proactive reset, or a fine-tune or software upgrades. We’re starting to deploy it. It will really help us to improve the user experience and mitigate both calls and truck rolls.
BN: I’m with Kevin.
Tony Werner: We’ve made transforming the customer experience a focus throughout the company, so it would be impossible to briefly summarize everything we’re doing. That said, I’m really excited about the continued evolution of our “My Account” app, which gives our customers pinpoint control over their accounts, and greatly reduces the need for calls and even service visits. What’s great about the app is that it’s an app — and like any app, we can continually update and expand it. One of the features we recently debuted, and are launching nationwide in the next few months, is our Tech ETA feature. It lets people see where their service technician is, en route, on an interactive map — similar to what folks have come to expect with online car services.
MCN: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon — they’re all companies that grew up on broadband, and as such are natively “agile” and “DevOps.” What’s the status of those Web-side development concepts in your organizations?
BN: Yes, we have to work faster. Unquestionably, DevOps and all the other related buzzwords are important and happening.
TW: Agile and DevOps are both very real to us, and really form the foundation of the innovative product development model we’ve adopted over the past five years. We work those development concepts every day, whether in the form of fast-paced product-development “sprints” or cross-functional tiger teams that bring together design, engineering and product experts in lean, fast-moving leadership groups. I think our commitment to those development principles stands with the very best of Silicon Valley, and is evidenced in a product like [cloud-based video platform] X1, which is updated at Web speed and frequency in a way that delivers new products and services. Xfinity Games and Xfinity Share are just two that we unveiled this past calendar year.
KH: We too have really leaned in on those particular practices to put them into operation over the last year and a half. We’ve rolled out the agile methodology, and we’re seeing great returns. Our “target state” website, which is the internal name of our e-commerce program — that’s agile. Sprint after sprint, we’re adding new capabilities, based on real customer feedback.
As for DevOps, earlier this year I moved to an integrated organizational structure around DevOps, and combining Tier 1 and Tier 2 [resources]. For video, voice and high-speed data, I co-located the development and operations teams around those platforms, with one, single end-to-end owner.
MCN: Was it painful?
KH: To be honest, I was concerned about the organization’s ability to adapt to the new model. So I was pleasantly surprised to see how pleased our people have been. The co-location, the structure, the tools — every one wants to deliver better services. That’s the goal, and we’re doing that. But to your point, some of the tools and techniques to integrate DevOps into the daily norm are still coming along.
BN: But it will be more painful to ignore this shift!
MCN: What does it take to be technologically competitive in these times?
KH: Great question. I’ve been here four and a half years or so. The rate of change within the MSO space, from a technology perspective, is now on par with the technological competitive landscape. It wasn’t always that way. We’re now competing against some of the largest technology players on the face of the Earth. We need to continuously improve our feedback loops, evaluate trends and architect platforms. And we have to do that in tight sync with our chief marketing and chief product officers and their teams.
TW: First and foremost, it requires a will to innovate, which in turn requires a willingness to disrupt your own processes and preconceptions. A product like X1 exists because a small team here started with a basic premise — “We can make this better.” It’s an ethos that I’m committed to cultivating throughout our product-development process. When you start from a position of wanting to constantly improve and build better mousetraps, the rest is just effort and execution.
BN: It takes amazing luck, forecasting of technology trends, understanding what Apple and Google are doing — and being able to predict what they are going to do. And allocating resources to the right projects. And on and on!
MCN: On to some nitty-gritty tech issues. WiFi and LTE-U/LAA: It has the potential to seriously disrupt WiFi connectivity. On a scale of 1-10 — where 1 is, “Relax, everything’s going to be OK,” and 10 is “battle stations, brace for impact!” — where are you?
KH: Up until recently, I was closer to the 8-9 range, because of the uncertainties about how the process is unfolding. Now, I’m trending toward a 6 or 7. We’re hanging our hat on LAA [Licensed Assisted Access], the international standard. We think it’s more WiFi-friendly. There are also some tailwinds around [Qualcomm’s] muLTEfire [wireless-broadband] approach. It’s more equal — it enables us to have a bit more of a level playing field, as it relates to the control plane of the unlicensed band.
BN: I give it a 5 — it’s as much an opportunity as it is a disruption. LTE-U is going to happen. We have to figure ways to make it effective for us. It’s in the unlicensed band, so we can participate in it as well. The control plane should be in the unlicensed band, too.
MCN: One day, CableLabs tests cite a definite and deleterious impact of LTE-U on WiFi; the next day, other tests indicate no impact. What are the indicators of truth?
BN: Anytime you have different PHYs [physical layers] operating in the same spectrum, it can be a problem. CableLabs is doing a great job for us, to move it from “problem” to “opportunity.”
KH: I also think there’s a definite correlation involving the physical distance between the WiFi access point and the LTE tower. At 300 meters or so, there’s little impact on throughput. At 20 meters, you can have almost a 100% reduction in the output. So a lot of it is correlated to distance, but the standards will help.
MCN: IP video: Where are you with it, and when will your networks be “all-IP?”
BN: Our strategy is to first move the user interface, then VOD, then linear, to IP. The UI and VOD shifts are in full swing. Linear has started with our Horizon Go service, but not yet to legacy set-tops. We’ll probably start down that path in 2017.
TW: We’ve spent significant time and resources on this. Great progress so far. That said, our industry still has a good deal of work ahead before we realize the all-IP video future. Ingesting all of the assets and local channel lineups is a small part of the overall effort. Operationalizing, building all of the tools, implementing alternate content switching — it’ll take some time.
KH: All of our video distribution to second screens is IP-enabled, as is all of our VOD ecosystem. We’re about to complete the first year of a two-year plan to go all-digital. That’ll free up enough spectrum to enable our [DOCSIS] 3.1 plans. When that’s complete, at the end of ’16, we’ll follow our IP roadmap. It’ll likely take us three-plus years before we’re all-IP, but we’re on our way.
MCN: What’s the faster and more efficient way to sustainable bandwidth and capacity: DOCSIS 3.1, or fiber-deep and PON [Passive Optical Network]?
TW: Hands down, DOCSIS 3.1. With 3.1, we’re backward-compatible. Devices can be self-installed. No backhoes. Any network improvements we make in addition to DOCSIS 3.1 will only serve to enhance its capacity to deliver superfast Internet to our customers.
BN: Agree. DOCSIS 3.1 is the most efficient way; that’s a no brainer. Taking fiber deeper is definitely an option for rebuilds and upgrades. Fiber to the home [FTTH] makes sense for most new builds. Depending on the situation, we have many tools in our tool bag. D3.1 is the most cost-efficient.
KH: With our “G1GABLAST” product, which we launched about a year ago, we’ve been extending fiber deeper — all the way to the home or [multiple dwelling unit]. We’ve had pretty good success around that. It’ll still be a hybrid of both technologies [DOCSIS 3.1 and fiber-deep].
MCN: What’s the state of the state of DOCSIS 3.1? How and when does it “go to market?”
KH: What we’re hearing throughout the ecosystem is very encouraging, in terms of the speeds, spectral efficiencies, backward-compatibility to DOCSIS 3.0 and overall interoperability. I think you’ll start to see market trials and production networks in ’16. We’ll probably be late ’16 or early ’17, as we finalize the all-digital spectrum reclamation. DOCSIS 3.1 will be a key tool in the toolkit to enable Gigabit services in our broader footprint — it has a very long life ahead of it.
BN: We’re already deploying CCAP [Converged Cable Access Platform] with D3.1 capability on both the downstream and the upstream signal directions. We’ll issue a request for proposals on consumer premises equipment [CPE] later this year, with selections early next year. Deployment will be end of 2016, early 2017, depending on how long it takes to certify and trial the new devices with a new chipset.
MCN: Will it evolve like the prior versions of DOCSIS — modems and gateways first, then headend gear and CMTS [cable modem termination system]?
KH: Yes, I think that’s the expected sequence of events. I think the CPE in general is a little behind the curve, but over the next few months you’ll see changes there.
MCN: Gigabit services: All the rage! And then there’s the reality of it: The fastest tiers are invariably the lowest subscribed. Is it a necessity or a red herring?
BN: You know, there’s lots of smoke and mirrors with Gigabit services. Our bull’s-eye product offering now is 150 Megabits per second. That’s plenty competitive, and it’s doing quite well. Gigabit is still a niche product, but I think it’ll be mainstream in about three years — mainstream for us, anyway. Our cost to get to Gigabit will be an order of magnitude less than a telco deployment, on a cost-per-passing basis.
KH: We rolled out our G1GABLAST service about a year ago, so we’re slightly ahead of the curve on that one. We’ve had a good take rate where it’s available, but not everybody needs a Gig today. As we evolve it, it will continue to gain traction. More importantly, we doubled our speeds this year on our most popular tiers, across our entire footprint. Our focus is trying to make sure we’re delivering high-quality speed, with minimized constraints, to the majority of our footprint.
MCN: What should this audience know about speed vs. throughput? KH: Speed is one thing. Concurrency of devices is another. It’s a function of the weakest link in the chain. If the WiFi router or gateway isn’t 802.11ac, speeds are going to drop — even if there’s a Gig coming into the house.
TW: Very few things need a burst rate of more than 4 to 10 Mbps, but multiple devices at low speeds do accumulate to higher traffic. We’re always engineering our networks for both burst rate and throughput. Ultimately, all of the attention around Gigabit is a very good thing for the industry and for consumers, because it drives us all to stay well ahead of the curve as we engineer the access networks of tomorrow.
MCN: The upstream path: To widen, or not to widen? If widen — when, how much and how?
BN: Upstream is important, but not as important as downstream. We are mostly a society of consumers, not publishers. So far, anyway.
KH: I think the reality of applications and the leveraging of the cloud are just putting more pressure on the upstream. We’ve seen a couple percentage points of upstream growth, year over year. Bonded channels are an option; moving the upper boundary of the upstream [from 42 MHz] is also an option. There are definitely some levers for us to pull, particularly as we take fiber deeper.
TW: The nice thing about DOCSIS 3.1 is that it allows for a higher [spectrum] split, all the way up to 204 MHz. I think we will take advantage of this in certain places. I don’t think it is absolutely required, but we have the tools.
MCN: To what extent is the RDK a part of your or your company’s day-to-day technology work?
KH: Tony and Balan are farther down the RDK path. As we leverage the X1 platform to be the user interface of our Contour 2 app, we’re moving to RDK as a part of our home architecture system. So we’ll be doing more with RDK in the future, with our video products. Also, as we continue to improve our in-home WiFi presence, we’ll be looking at RDK-B for our in-home gateway and architectural designs.
TW: I think the same advantages that we have obtained in RDK-V [for video] will be evident in RDK-B — meaning the power of a community, and the significantly faster time-to-market for new technology, and the faster release of features. Same story for both.
BN: I challenge all the other cable companies to really adopt this. RDK-V and RDK-B [broadband] are a big part of our future development. We need scale in our collective development — that way, we can drive some amazing things, together, with a common underlying stack. RDK has all of the relevant checkboxes: Open source, cloud, scale, embedded in most chips, expertise in our development community, vendor support — it leaves no reason to want to go do your own thing.
MCN: Anything in particular you’re on the lookout for at this week’s SCTE Cable-Tec Expo?
KH: I’m looking forward to seeing some of the great advances in energy conservation and disaster recovery. Cox is making several good advances in both categories, and we’ll have a few demos onsite in New Orleans. Tell your readers to check it out.
BN: Agree again with Kevin, sans the demos. As the co-chair of the Energy2020 program, I can attest — it’s big, it matters, and everybody should know more about it.
TW: Distributed access architecture — products and technologies.