Standards for a New World Order

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Anyone who has ever twisted an “F”-connector into place has the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers to thank.

The physical dimensions of the commonplace television connection port are specified in the first standard ever submitted by the SCTE to the American National Standards Institute, the non-profit body that coordinates the U.S. voluntary standardization and conformity systems.

Technical standards describing agreed-upon ways that certain parts fit together or how digital data flows over networks are important to the cable industry’s economic firmament. Because of standards, manufacturers can ramp up production of devices and technologies with the assurance that they’ll mesh with the requirements of customers.

“Standards facilitate economic activity,” says Steve Oksala, vice president of the SCTE’s standards-development program. “If you didn’t have standards, you wouldn’t have an interoperable system.”

He should know. Oksala spent 35 years with information technology company Unisys Corp., the last 12 of which were devoted to advancing standards for operating systems, software applications and more. When SCTE president John Clark wanted to elevate the SCTE’s role in setting standards, he recruited Oksala to head the effort.

The departmental upgrade four years ago coincided with cable’s migration to a digital-media domain. That technology transformation brought with it a broad need to set standards for everything from the way Internet data packets travel over cable’s high-speed conduits to the power requirements for point-of-deployment modules (more commonly known as “CableCards”) used in new digital set-top boxes.

Both are among the more than 140 standards that have been advanced by the SCTE after a painstaking evaluation process that results in published documents approved by ANSI and available freely from the SCTE’s Web site. Some of the standards SCTE has fostered originate with Cable Television Laboratories Inc., the industry’s research and development arm, and others are submitted for consideration by product developers or cable companies.

An SCTE engineering committee heads the standards activities, with six sub-committees and numerous working groups reviewing submitted standards documents, endorsing or opposing their contents, and ultimately forwarding edited submissions and comments to ANSI.

Since 2001, when Oksala joined the SCTE, the organization’s standards activities have accelerated dramatically. ANSI has approved 143 standards that originated with the SCTE since 2001, against just seven from 1995-2000. In 2002, ANSI approved a record 54 SCTE-originated technical standards.

Among the most prominent of its recent standards work has been the SCTE-led submission of six separate technical standards for the manner in which cable networks and premises equipment interoperates with digital program streams and consumer-electronics devices.

The “plug and play” standards provide a new blueprint for the relationship between cable and the consumer-electronics industry to reconcile past differences and produce new possibilities in consumer home-media applications. But some SCTE standards are meant to enable new possibilities within the cable sector itself. For instance, the organization has recently introduced new standards designed to allow cable companies to insert digital commercials within the program streams of digital networks — a feat that could open up new revenue sources for cable companies whose current ad inventories are filling up.

INCREASED RESOURCES

Shortly after taking the helm at SCTE in 1998, Clark made it a point to increase the resources allocated to the standards process as digital technologies emerged. To fund the enhanced effort, Clark has won support from 137 companies and organizations that pay fees to participate in the standards-evaluation process. The process is open to any participant. Among the members is the National Association of Broadcasters.

“Our standards activities back in the ’90s, during the analog world, were important, but they were not moving at the pace they are today,” says Clark. “In the shift from analog to digital, and from cable television to the bundle, the need for standards increased exponentially.”

Even so, Clark says there’s still one missing ingredient in the SCTE standards development mix: programmers.

“What surprises me most about our standards, what I find frankly mind-boggling, is that there is not more programmer and content involvement in our standards process,” Clark says. That’s surprising, he says, because much of the recent work done by the SCTE and its standards committee relates to the way that digital content courses its way through cable networks and is manipulated by various devices in the home. Some programmers, such as Home Box Office and Turner Broadcasting System Inc., have been active in the efforts, according to Clark and Oksala. But the SCTE president says he’d like to see more involvement by the programming community.

“This may be part of my own bias coming up in the marketing and content side,” says Clark. “But if there is an area of our industry that needs to be more represented in the development of new-world standards, it’s content providers. If I’m a content provider, I would certainly want a voice in what that delivery system would look like.”

Although programmers may not be fully represented, another segment of the cable industry certainly is. Oksala says he’s impressed by the level of involvement of cable’s top management — chief technology officers and CEOs alike — in the standards process. That’s a marked departure from the information technology world where Oksala previously worked. The SCTE vice president says it reflects the keen influence of technologies and standards on the future of cable.

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