May 2008 | Volume 11/ Number 5
Focus on Cable: More Exciting Than Ever
By: Richard "Zippy" Grigonis
Cable took years to get VoIP up and running (“digital voice” as they call it) but have now embraced it. Indeed, many cablecos are now considered more innovative than their telco counterparts. When IPTV (News - Alert) technologies first appeared, all telcos perfunctorily made announcements, since they felt they had to compete with cablecos. Over time however, the cable companies themselves have seen that IPTV is the wave of the future, and are more immersed in figuring out ways of exploiting its workings than most of the telcos. Go figure.
Continuing innovation and deployments of new cable platforms have enriched vendors that make the underlying component technologies, such as semiconductor companies like Texas Instruments (News - Alert) and Broadcom. Broadcom is known for their vast array of chips, including cable modem chips, digital cable tuner chips, CMTS chips, cable set-top box chips, HDTV/SDTV video chips, graphics and receiver chips, H.264 and MPEG-4 decoders, and MPEG-2 digital audio/video encoders, all of which enable their customers to develop interesting and inexpensive cable products involving the high-speed delivery and display of voice, video and data services over hybrid-fiber coaxial (HFC) cable. Broadcom (News - Alert) offers complete cable modem, cable set-top box, CMTS and residential gateway system solutions that include hardware reference designs and software support.
This technology is now making it possible to not just watch cable programming in your living room, but as Mobile TV while you’re waiting online at the supermarket. Triple and Quad-play systems enable you to access your email and make unlimited calls to, say, your Comcast (News - Alert) home phone without consuming wireless minutes.
The latest exciting cable-related technology to find deployment is DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications ) 3.0., an international standard that defines the communications and operation support interface requirements for a high bandwidth data-over-cable system. DOCSIS was developed by CableLabs along with such contributing companies as ARRIS, BigBand Networks, Broadcom, Cisco, Conexant, Correlant, Intel (News - Alert), Motorola, Netgear, Terayon, and Texas Instruments. Ironically, although DOCSIS 3.0 appeared in August 2006, it’s only now making its influence felt the form of soon-to-be-certified cable modems and Comcast’s trial service in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region, to be expanded to its entire service area by 2010. DOCSIS 3.0 supports management over IPv6 and channel bonding, which enables multiple downstream and upstream channels to be used simultaneously by a single subscriber. Thus, for $150 a month, Comcast can offer residential customers up to 50 Mbps for downloading, or receiving, files from the Internet or elsewhere. (That kind of bandwidth can move a 4 gigabyte movie file in about 10 minutes.) Uploading, or sending, files will run at up to 5 Mbps. Businesses wanting this service will have to pay $200 for a special package that also bundles in additional technical support and security software.
Cablevision Systems (News - Alert) Corp. advertises a 30 Mbps download/5 Mbps upload service for $65 a month, and it even offers an unadvertised, unmarketed 50 Mbps maximum download service (with amazing 50 Mbps maximum uploads) for about $200 a month. As for Comcast, it has said that although current download bandwidths are capped at 50 Mbps, the DOCSIS 3.0 technology can support service of about 150 Mbps.
160 Mbps has been demonstrated by Motorola (News - Alert)’s DOCSIS 3.0 cable modems. Motorola’s DOCSIS 3.0 CPE portfolio includes the SB6120 SURFboard Cable Modem which approximates 160 Mbps in DOCSIS mode and 195 Mbps in Euro-DOCSIS mode, without the need for an HFC plant upgrade. It supports all DOCSIS 3.0 standards including channel bonding, both IPv4 and IPv6, and advanced encryption services. The Motorola SBV6120 SURFboard Digital Voice Modem builds on the SB6120 and offers up to two lines of full-featured digital voice service. Finally, the Motorola SBV6220 SURFboard Digital Voice Modem also builds on the SBV6120 and offers Lithium-ion battery backup, which can provide backup power during a power outage.
Motorola’s high speed cable modems are powered by Texas Instruments chips.
“TI is proud to support Motorola and the MSO community to help drive the quick, industry-wide adoption of standards based DOCSIS 3.0,” says Dennis Rauschmayer, Texas Instruments Digital Connected Home General Manager. “We are confident that the selection of TI’s Puma 5, the first standards compliant DOCSIS 3.0 chip, will enable consumers to experience higher transfer speeds and next generation video and voice services.”
For Comcast’s fellow cable operators or “Multi-Service Operators” (MSOs) who don’t yet offer IP connectivity to their customers, the Comcast Media Center (CMC) recently launched “HITS Broadband”, a service that provide cable system operators with an alternative for IP connectivity (via Comcast’s own fiber optic network), and will give MSOs the ability to launch new advanced services supported by CMC.
Advanced services, such as IPTV and high-speed Internet access plans, demand vast amounts of additional bandwidth, and MSOs must scale their back-end networks accordingly to gain capacity. To achieve increasing bandwidth at reasonable expense, MSOs generally resort to adopting Ethernet technology, which provides the lowest cost-to-bandwidth solution for internetworking and is the world’s most widely deployed networking protocol. This activity has enriched the coffers of such companies as MRV Communications (News - Alert) that has supplied advanced edge network equipment to carriers, service providers and enterprise customers worldwide. MRV’s OptiSwitch line of Ethernet switching products can provide MSOs with a full solution to interconnect the network, from a few ports of 10 Mbps Ethernet to hundreds of gigabits of Ethernet switching.
MRV’s OptiSwitch family also provides full IP routing and MPLS (OS-Z and OS-M) capabilities to allow 3rd party ISP connections for the customers without wasting bandwidth or overhead. To connect these growing back-end networks, MRV offers the FiberDriver product line, which consists of a bevy of fiber-optic interconnect products, from repeaters and converters to large Wave-Division Multiplexing (WDM) systems. Repeaters and converters allow legacy equipment to be kept in place while taking advantage of the latest in fiber-optic technology, including single-fiber and fiber-optic redundancy. MRV products allow up to 48 channels of Gigabit Ethernet to operate on a single fiber-pair, and the cost scales down to very inexpensive, 4-channel WDM solutions.
Will that be a Triple or Quad Play?
One of the more interesting services to appear in selected markets is Pivot, a Comcast/Sprint (News - Alert) quad-play venture (voice, video, data, and wireless) that enables your Sprint cell phone to connect to Comcast services. With Pivot, you can get Fox News, E!, and Bloomberg (News - Alert) News along with made-for-mobile channels on your phone, along with sports, movie trailers and streaming music. There’s even a programming guide.
Pivot allows for unlimited calling (with no wireless minutes consumed) between your wireless phone and your Comcast Digital Voice home phone. You can forward calls from home to wireless or vice versa, for no additional charge. You can check your home and wireless voicemail with a single call, or download songs from the Sprint Music Store.
As for triple play services (minus the wireless phone connection), the FCC (News - Alert) recently decided that the exclusive “triple-play” deals that cablecos have negotiated with multi-tenant residential apartment buildings block consumer access and harms competition for voice, video, and broadband services. As a result, the FCC has banned carriers “from entering into exclusive contracts to provide telecommunications services in residential apartment buildings,” thus allowing other companies to somehow entreat multi-tenant building dwellers into subscribing to their services.
The cable industry’s principal lobbying group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA (News - Alert)), has maintained that under such an open arrangement, cable operators would find it difficult to recover their investments in apartment building infrastructure.
Quest for Quality
As many services get squeezed through a cable network, particularly IPTV, concerns over quality reach near paranoid proportions, since a few bad visual experiences can boost customer churn. In response, companies such as Symmetricom (News - Alert) have arisen to manufacture of high quality telecommunications products and testing solutions.
Gary Croke, Director of Marketing for the QoE Assurance Division of Symmetricom, says, “We commissioned MRG to conduct an independent study of top North American cable providers, to gain insight into what is happening with cable digital network video quality. We captured and tabulated the results. Some interesting facts were uncovered. First, video quality is of central importance. That’s evidenced by a couple of numbers: 90 percent said that video quality as a critical or very important part of their video initiatives. 80 percent said that service quality is the main reason why they get calls to their calls centers. 62 percent of all errors resulted in service calls driving up operating expenses. So, the first takeaway is that video quality is of central importance. Now there’s recognition amongst these operators that network monitoring is critical.”
“Secondly, operators are struggling to find the monitoring tools that they need to find the right job,” says Croke. “I think this is evidenced some numbers: 61.9 percent of cablecos said they find out about errors from customers phone calls. Their ‘monitoring solution’ today appears to be their customers. It’s a very reactive situation. Also, only 31 percent of the cablecos said they use tools to do any monitoring, which is why they’re struggling with quality. Additionally, current tools available to cable operators aren’t sufficient in that they lack the ability to accurately measure what the end-user quality of experience actually is. They’re more focused on the network than they are on end-user QoE. Moreover, these cable guys are saying that the tools are too costly.”
“Third, 65 percent of the problems appear in both the last mile and the home, with 50 percent of the cable operating issues arising from the home network/customer premises,” says Croke. “This is expected to be high since many problems occur inside customers’ homes from faulty wiring, self-installed coax wire or bad equipment. No other responses came close to issues from the customers’ home. Headend issues were second with 19.5 percent, followed by Edge/Node at 14.9 percent.”
“All of this is why cablecos are looking to monitoring companies to find effective solutions to monitor things such as the last mile,” says Croke.
It seems inescapable – many of today’s most exciting communications developments will continue to emerge from the cable industry. IT
The following companies were mentioned in this article:
MRV Communications (www.mrv.com)
Texas Instruments (www.ti.com)
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