Cable Operators Must Be Homeward Bound

Sept. 9, 2010
It's a bit ironic that the industry that has done more than any other to revolutionize in-home entertainment is scrambling to defend its primacy in the domicile against the telephone industry. Making it easy for subscribers to network home devices is poised t...
It's a bit ironic that the industry that has done more than any other to revolutionize in-home entertainment is scrambling to defend its primacy in the domicile against the telephone industry.Making it easy for subscribers to network home devices is poised to take off as multimedia reaches the masses and complex consumer, professional and smart grid technology becomes more common. Telecom marketers often say that the more services subscribers take from a provider the less likely they are to churn. This axiom will never be truer as end devices proliferate and their interdependency grows deeper.The bottom line is simple: The industry can no long afford to think in terms of selling individual services. The goal must be to provide a comprehensive suite of interrelated services that are deeply enmeshed in the home network itself.The Good NewsThere is plenty of good news for cable operators on this front: The industry has, as always, its powerful coaxial network standing ready. At the same time, many of the most difficult challenges of networking the home are being met head on. The industry is employing specifications authored by the Multimedia over Coax Alliance [] to support a service - multiple room digital video recording - that is expected to be something of a killer app. The idea is that this will pave the way for other services.
"Initially, the cable guys are looking at it in terms of home networking with multi-room DVR," said Jason Blackwell, the Director of the Digital Home Group for Allied Business Intelligence []. "They want to create their own network in the home specifically for...the cable STBs. What we are seeing is a tremendous amount of momentum for MoCA."The challenge and potential problem - and the irony, considering the cable industry's pedigree - is that the telephone industry has been proactively addressing this issue. Indeed, the cable industry may in catch up mode, at least against AT&T [] and Verizon [] and their U-verse and FiOS projects, respectively."I think it is very close," Blackwell said. "I think cable operators just now are deploying multi-room DVR where companies such as AT&T have been supporting it for a while. They may be a bit behind, and that is why we are seeing a lot of deployments."
There have been several cable-oriented MoCA moves and announcements during the past few months. For instance, in May, Cox [] and Cisco [] introduced the Plus Package, which delivers high definition whole-home high definition DVR services on the vendor's next-generation set-top boxes as its systems expand to 1 GHz capacity. Last month, Comcast [] continued its roll out of multi-room capability by adding the capability to its XFINITY TV [] menu in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.Whole Home DVRs FirstIt seems clear that the multi-room DVR rollout is moving more quickly. It also seems that this service will become table stakes - something that an operator must offer to even be in the game. "Once there is a critical mass of perhaps 10 percent that have MoCA in the U.S., it is going to happen very quickly," said Anton Monk, the Vice President of Technology for vendor Entropic []. "We expect pretty good coverage of U.S. homes by the end of 2011."Despite the recent progress, observers say that the industry's move to multi-room DVR services has been a bit sluggish. Undoubtedly, contributing factors are the complex nature of the transition and the industry's tendency to move slowly.There is a lot of preparatory work for the move. Sean Yarborough, the Senior Director of Strategy and Business Development for test and equipment manufacturer Spirent [], noted that this evolution requires cable systems and their networked elements - including filters, amps and splitters - to have at least 1 GHz of capacity. This means a truck roll in the vast majority of cases.
The industry, in such a competitive situation, needs to make sure that multi-room DVR - the precursor of a generation of new services - is deployed smoothly and works seamlessly with other emerging techniques such as Tru2Way and EBIF "We are at the very beginning," Yarborough said. "It is not on a nationwide level yet. They are doing it on a per-system basis, working through the kinks before a nationwide rollout."The next wave already is forming, in the form of MoCA 2.0. The standard, which was approved in June, significantly expands MoCA's capabilities. MoCA 2.0 - which is backward compatible with MoCA 1.1 - offers basic (400 Mbps) and enhanced (800 Mbps) performance, a radical improvement over MoCA 1.1's 175 Mbps. The organization said that point-to-point throughputs of 500 Mbps is another option. The packet error rate has been reduced to one in 100 million, the organization said.The current standard, said Stephen Palm, the Senior Technical Director for Broadcom's Broadband Communications Group, can support five or six HD channels. That may seem like plenty, he said - but almost certainly won't do in the long run."During the next few years people will figure out great ways to burn bandwidth," Palm said. "People will migrate to devices that go faster. 3D gets a lot of discussion now, and you hear various numbers of bandwidth requirements. Some say that we will need 50 percent [more] bandwidth."And Then Comes WirelessAnother issue going forward will be how to integrate wireless into the home networking hierarchy. Eventually, wireless networking based on 802.11n will merge with MoCA-enabled set-top boxes or gateways to provide a jumping off point for the access point that will look to the network like a wired endpoint.Though it is possible to conceive of Wi-Fi and MoCA battling for supremacy in the home - in other words, for Wi-Fi to be positioned as the main networking protocol for in-home signal transmissions to all devices - it is far more likely that they will work together. "I see them as complementary," said Broadcom's Palm.Few doubt that the industry is well set up to use MoCA to its advantage. At the same time, the telephone industry is using many of the same technologies. Verizon and DirecTV, for instance, are members of the MoCA Alliance and use the standard. The most influential service provider not using MoCA is AT&T, which uses protocols written by The HomePlug Powerline Alliance [] As the name indicates, HomePlug uses ubiquitous home wiring to deploy signals throughout the home. The key is which of the established players uses its favored technology - which, at the end of the day, do much the same thing - most effectively.ABI's Blackwell suggests that the industry may have something to worry about besides the telephone companies. It is possible that providers that don't own their own networks will use 4G or another means to get into the game, just as non-facilities based service providers - companies without their own networks - are major players.These providers may be one reason that the cable operators are shaking off their lethargy. "[C]ompanies like Telus offer Xbox 360 as an IPTV set-top box and basically give the devices away for free to subscribers," Blackwell said. "That opens a whole interesting world of third party CE devices evolving to become STBs in the home that are capable of delivering a whole range of additional services."The next year almost certainly will be key for the rollout of multi-room DVR and the bigger world of networked homes. Spirent's Yarborough nicely summed up a landscape that is not yet fully formed: "From the in-home perspective," he said, "MSOs have a big opportunity - and a big challenge at the same time."Carl Weinschenk is Broadband Gear Report's Features Editor.