Easily the biggest tech topic in cable in recent years is the advent and spread of 1 Gbps and faster residential Internet speeds. Gigabit speeds are old hat in business services or long-haul fiber, but they're fairly new to North American householders, only having originated here in 2010 when Chattanooga's municipal utility company, EPB, built a gigabit fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network. Even today, gigabit's still somewhat rare, being deployed in just a few parts of a relative handful of cities. However, demand for gigabit is growing, and it figures strongly in the plans of all the major operators, as well as those of many minor ones.
For now, FTTH remains the technology of choice for most gigabit deployments, and fiber vendors at Expo will be showing numerous different approaches to the service, primarily RFoG and PON-based technologies. For cable operators, FTTH deployments have mostly been in greenfield areas. A few HFC-based gigabit services have launched, notably with Videotron in Canada and Mediacom in Missouri; both leverage DOCSIS 3.0.
Speaking of DOCSIS ...
Broadly speaking, cable's gigabit ambitions hinge on the multi-gig capabilities of DOCSIS 3.1, which can deliver said speeds over HFC plant. Cable ops are hot to get it, and we really are nearly there. At the latest DOCSIS 3.1 interop at CableLabs in September, 20 vendors showed compliant CCAPs, CMTSs, modems and gateways, and test and measurement gear all playing nicely and at gratifying speeds.
With a few exceptions, CCAP has largely moved from new product introductions to deployment and network integration. For example, CCAP deployment figures strongly in Time Warner Cable's (NYSE:TWC) "TWC Maxx" network upgrades, as well as its increased Internet speeds and transition to all-digital video. Other operators are taking similar approaches, of course.
The question about CCAP - and network architecture generally - is where it's headed in the next few years. Efforts are underway to create virtual versions that can run on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers rather than dedicated boxes.
As previously noted, there's a definite move toward virtualizing network functions in software in the cable industry, giving rise to the tongue-twisting abbreviation "NFV." A few years ago, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) CTO Tony Werner said there's very little that cable operators do that can't be moved into software and that his company was hiring large numbers of software engineers. The benefits of such an approach are clear: Given equivalent functionality, COTS servers and firmware updates are less expensive and more flexible than forklift upgrades of dedicated gear. The trick is "equivalent functionality," and not everyone is convinced that's a given. Dedicated gear isn't going away any time soon, but the trend is definitely toward virtualization wherever it's feasible.
Nitties and gritties
Some other technology trends at Expo can be expected to center on WiFi, multiscreen video, advanced user interfaces (UIs), and improved video search and recommendations.
WiFi and multiscreen both have moved from "Oh, neat" to mainstream in a remarkably short time, more or less in parallel with the development of tablets and smartphones. Both also are by and large still value-adds, though the industry is working hard to find effective ways to monetize them. WiFi faces a potential threat from LTE-U interference in the 5 GHz band; however, LTE-U isn't finalized yet, much less deployed, and CableLabs and the NCTA are keeping a close eye on it.
Advanced UI and content discovery are somewhat symbiotic. The intelligence for both - often based on HTML5 - typically resides in the network or cloud rather than the set-top box, and both aim to help subs find something to watch among hundreds of channels. Research from several sources indicates that most pay TV viewers regularly watch only 17 or so channels, and improved UI and search/recommendations technology are ways to increase that number. The importance that operators attach to this problem was underlined in April when Charter Communications (NASDAQ:CHTR) teamed up with ARRIS (NASDAQ:ARRS) to buy UI vendor ActiveVideo.
In all likelihood, the biggest topic of discussion at Expo won't actually be technical; it'll be industry consolidation. Seems like everybody's buying everybody else lately, both on the operator side and the vendor side, and it's hard to see when it'll calm down. Surely it'll stop before we reach the point of having just one operator and one vendor. Surely.