SCTE Confab Zeros In on Digital Networking

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As technology continues to evolve at a fast and furious pace, it's not enough for us just to understand the current changes. To stay competitive, we need to keep one eye on the future, always taking into account the emerging technologies that will impact our businesses down the road and how will they affect the strategies we put into action today.

This is the crux of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' annual Conference on Emerging Technologies, which, now in its 12th year, identifies and explores those advancing technologies predicted to have the most significant effect on the industry in the coming three to five years. This week in San Jose, Calif., the industry's leading engineers, industry analysts and technologists will come together to examine the factors driving the industry to an increasing dependency upon networking.

Networking refers to everything from the private, in-home networks to the global commercial and public networks (e.g., the Internet) through which we provide information and share resources for educational and entertainment purposes. The topic of networking is not constrained to the physical media that signals travel through, it also addresses the extensive suite of protocols and applications that have been developed to allow efficient, effective communications between divergent systems. Twenty years from now, all of this will be "old hat" but, for several more years, managing the growth and change in networking technologies will be one of our greatest challenges and, potentially, one of our greatest accomplishments.

The root cause for this change is the industry's transition from its role as a provider of entertainment programming to a broader role of establishing a means for delivering reliable, two-way, truly interactive communications between myriad, indeterminate entities.

Many factors have converged to enable this transition. The incorporation of optical technologies and components within the cable plant, especially in the nodal architectures of modern plants, has increased the mechanical and environmental reliability of our systems, while permitting marked improvements in basic performance metrics. This was accomplished by breaking up large systems into a number of smaller ones. Reliability was further enhanced through reductions in amplifier and power-supply cascades. All of this allows us to provide a more uniform level of performance across a much larger area. The area covered by modern cable television plants has exploded, especially in major metropolitan areas. The "reach" provided by optical technologies has allowed the system operator to merge smaller, out-lying systems into larger ones.

Another tremendous benefit of using optical technology is the ability to provide two-way services. Although many operators had deployed "addressable" technology in the "tree and branch" age, the reverse path was unsuitable for any modulation scheme more complex than FSK or PSK. Optics-based, nodal architectures have allowed for reducing/controlling the accumulation of both noise and interference sources, both of which can have an adverse impact upon desired signals. High-speed data communications, initially provided in proprietary modem systems and, subsequently codified into DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) 1.0, proved the value of our two-way communications media, as well as demonstrating the true potential of the provision of other, data centric services. These also inaugurated movement toward widespread carriage of "digital" signals, now augmented by digital video services and voice traffic (voice-over-Internet protocol and switched). It's not just analog, anymore!

Digital networking is a very complex field, with a large number of competing technologies that claim superiority over the others in one way or another. For one thing, we'll need to look at how to build networks that are capable of handling the wide range of traffic, from short, symmetrical voice to huge, asymmetrical video. Plus, given the number of legacy components we have, we'll have to determine whether or not MPEG-4 (Moving Picture Expert Group) is a practical advancement. We also need to address IP Version 6's capacity to offer addressing capabilities and flexibility, directing proper packets to proper terminals, and how we'll be able to manage the enormous database with MAC (media access control) and IP addresses for those terminals (modems, set-tops, gateways and others).

Another new concept related to this transition is "digital rights management," which is roughly equivalent to copy protection for videotapes. As major holders of programming materials, many MSOs and associated companies are justifiably concerned about protecting their "products" from pirates. Also, the Napster case should raise concerns about our responsibilities in protecting copyrights of other service providers. Can we really expect producers of entertainment programming to allow access to their assets without being able to ensure that our distribution channels are secure?

Indeed, network control and management is likely to develop into its own discipline (as our telephony-oriented friends have already demonstrated). We will, naturally, end up with networks upon networks. We will own and control parts of the network but other parts will be owned and controlled by other, unspecified entities.

That said, what kind of transport and distribution technologies would be required for our local, regional, statewide, national and global communications? How will we receive, process and distribute all of the diverse signals that our customers demand? And how will we accommodate the disparate in-home networking demands for both our customers and ourselves?

At the conference, we'll examine all of these considerations and the many different layers of future broadband networks. The first session, "Architecting Next-Generation Broadband Networks," will address the changes, additions and extensions of existing network architectures that will enable operators to provide advanced, data-centric services. Roger Brown, editorial director for CED Magazine, will moderate this session.

Next, "Optimizing Traffic Flow Over Broadband Networks," will examine the end-to-end mechanisms for transport over any type of medium, and how they'll enable operators to simplify and manage tomorrow's networks. Moderating this session will be Charles Cerino, senior director of Comcast New Media Development Inc.

"Issues Surrounding Next-Generation Services," moderated by Yvette Gordon, vice president of interactive technologies, SeaChange International, will look at the business and application issues the industry needs to address in order to move forward with new applications such as IP-based services and personal TV.

Finally, "Utilizing Next-Generation Broadband Networks," will focus on how operators can prepare to utilize next-generation broadband networks, including maintaining quality of service (QoS), approaches to traffic engineering for data and other types of services, IP multicast, IP address management and relevant field experiences. Victor Hou, chief systems architect, Pacific Broadband Communications, will moderate this session.

In addition to these core sessions, pre-conference tutorials will familiarize conference attendees with two of the enabling protocols that are in development and that will likely be prominent in all networking schemes of the future — MPEG-4 and IPv6. David Grubb III, vice president of network technology for Motorola Broadband Communications Sector, will guide these presentations.

We can't promise to provide all of the answers, but this year's Conference on Emerging Technologies will certainly identify many of the issues that we'll need to begin to explore and resolve in the coming years, helping us all as an industry prepare for what's next.

Dave Franklin is director of plant engineering for AOL Time Warner and program subcommittee chair for SCTE's Conference on Emerging Technologies 2002.

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