Over the past few months, cable operators have begun reaching out to subscribers' mobile devices. All signs suggest that the announcements are the leading edge of a rich wave of service offerings that will give customers unfettered access to linear and on-demand programming wherever they are and on whatever device they are using.Serving Apple iPads, Samsung Galaxy Tabs and all the other shiny new end points poses deep technical challenges to cable operators. It will take years to fully work through these issues. Sitting on the sidelines until the technology is fully baked is not an option, however. The industry must introduce services quickly in the face of raging competition from telcos and new providers such as Netflix.Great UnknownsThe bottom line is that a tremendous amount is unknown about what a settled, stable and extensible mobile distribution infrastructure will look like. "We're so early in the game right now with the rollout of some of these newer services that we still are in the trial stages in terms of how they stress the infrastructure and what demands they will place on operators in terms of system support and customer support," says In-Stat Principal Analyst Mike Paxon.In the overview, the most significant transition is from serving a home to serving the individuals within it. This is far more than a semantic change. Cable operators now will be dealing with multiple family members, each with their own profile, programming tastes and levels of access to content. This drastically extends both operators' responsibilities to keep programming out of the wrong hands and the amount of information that can be garnered and passed on to the operational support systems/business support systems (OSS/BSS) and, ultimately, the billing, marketing and other departments.That may sound a bit esoteric, but it has real ramifications. Carl Davies, Convergys' head of global solutions marketing for cable, broadband and satellite, says serving multiple devices directly in the home generates intense amounts of actionable intelligence that can be fed into the OSS/BSS to create specialized offerings.He also notes that the OSS/BSS segment must develop more sophisticated real-time policy engines that can perform such tasks as deny certain types of programming (such as, for instance, R-rated movies to a tablet registered to a minor) and honor agreements that limit the types of devices to which programming can be sent. "It is a different concept of what constitutes an account," Davies explains. "It is having an identity rather than having an account."Ken Morse, vice president of client architecture in Cisco's service provider video technology group, suggests that a number of issues still are works in progress even as three-screen services rolling out. Content delivery formats, content delivery systems and other types of support still have to be established.In the longer term, cable operators will transition from unicast to multicast environments. In today's unicast world, a discreet version of each requested piece of content is sent to the device. That's inefficient, especially in cases in which the same piece of content is requested on a frequent basis. In a multicast scenario, a single copy of the content can be distributed and cached closer to the end users.An important change that will gradually happen as the other changes unfold is the variant of WiFi being used. Cable operators now generally employ older 802.11g-based wireless access points in homes. Sam Heidari, CEO of chip makerQuantenna Communications, suggests that there will be a transition during next couple of years to 802.11n, a far more ambitious and flexible form of WiFi. 802.11n, which features advanced techniques such as beam forming and multiple sending and receiving antennas, requires significant testing by operators. "I would expect [802.11n] to be more of a norm in the late 2011 and 2012 time frame," says Heidari.Not Rip and ReplaceThe good news is that most of these changes will happen in parallel to established infrastructure. Marty Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing for thePlatform, points to five major areas of change: formatting content; helping subscribers find programming; creating policies; methods of delivery; and how to best present it all to subscribers. He suggests that all outside of the actual content delivery will be overlay systems to what already exists. Increasingly, however, experts say that will be found to drive efficiencies by integrating systems that will start out as discreet.Times have changed significantly, both in the technology itself and the way the industry harnesses it. Before the dawning of the IP age a decade ago, cable operators would research, build, test and, finally, gradually introduce new services. Now they must be pushed out of the nest with the assumption that changes will be made on the fly over time. "I think if we are on what I would call a 12- to 18-month journey, we are at month three," Morse says. "You obviously can stand up these services. The challenges are the reliability and the scalability."Carl Weinschenk is a reporter for Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at[email protected].