The Cable Industry Faces the Future

Dec. 8, 2010
The best way to characterize 2010 for the cable industry is as one of transition. Perhaps the most important drivers, ironically, are things that are happening outside the industry: Wireless is beckoning, new competitors are queuing up to steal cable’s customers...
The best way to characterize 2010 for the cable industry is as one of transition. Perhaps the most important drivers, ironically, are things that are happening outside the industry: Wireless is beckoning, new competitors are queuing up to steal cable’s customers, 3D televisions are beginning to move and, a bit further down the road, smart grid infrastructurepromises a wonderland of opportunity.It all is ahead, and it all was teased, to a greater or lesser degree, during 2010.This story will update a few issues that made news this year: 3D, EBIF and cellular backhaul. A fourth issue – the passage of the CALM Act – was not a major part of the narrative. It was important enough to get Congress to move, which is no small feat in an acrimonious year of political upheaval.In two weeks, we’ll look at issues that were big issues in 2010 – and likely will be even bigger next year: the role of adaptive streaming in cable operators’ campaign to compete against over-the-top (OTT) and other three-screen programmers, MoCA and whole-home networking, tru2way, the drive to have the industry’s set-tops comply with Energy Star initiatives, Cox’s 3G service and cable’s opportunity in the massive smart grid sector.


Some of BGR’s earlier coverage on EBIF can be found here.The year that is winding down was one of maturation for the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), according to Don Dulchinos, CableLabsSVP for advertising and interactive services.Three things, he says, illustrate the progress that has been made. By the end of the year, he reports that EBIF will be in 25 million deployed set-tops, making it second only to DOCSIS in terms of the CableLabs-fostered technology in the field. He says that CableLabs interoperability events show a markedly increased ability of EBIF agents to work across different vendors’ STBs. Finally, Dulchinos points out that EBIF applications are growing far more sophisticated. The format is being used for such tasks as VOD navigation, ecommerce and to integrate social media applications into the cable television experience.The year ahead will be characterized by continued growth in application sophistication. Until now the focus has been on applications that are tied to the channel the subscriber is watching. These are “bound” applications. The coming of a new revision of the EBIF standard will put the focus on “unbound” apps that work across the entire channel lineup, Dulchinos says.Dan Levinson, SVP of marketing at FourthWall Media, agrees that things are looking up for EBIF. “It was a terrific year in the advent of EBIF,” he says. “Every major cable company is taking strides to roll out the platform [and] most of midsize cable companies are following. In 2011, I think we will see a broad footprint of EBIF-enabled boxes that will mark a new era of interactive television.”


Some of BGR's earlier coverage of 3DTV can be found here.Back in May, the talk of the Cable Show in Los Angeles was 3DTV. It seemed that every other booth was offering some piece of hardware or software focusing on what, at that point, seemed to be a can’t-miss service.The balance of the year suggests that 3D will, indeed, become a tool in cable operators’ arsenals. But it has proven over the year that it won’t be a killer app and it won’t happen immediately.“To be honest, there has not been not as much of a ramp up as I expected,” notes Ramin Farassat, VP of product marketing and business development for RGB Networks. “A lot of discussion last year was the Masters [golf tournament] in 3D. That was a big deal, and then it kind of cooled down. Everyone is a lot busier in year-end projects.” Farassat says that three-screen development, ad insertion, high-def deployments and normal care and feeding of the cable network all have superseded 3DTV on cable operators’ priority lists.That doesn’t mean that 3D is dead — or anywhere close to it, however. Dr. Stefan Winkler, chief scientist for Cheetah Technologies, is a bit more upbeat than Farassat. “The interest level is about the same,” he says. “It has not really intensified. We are just finalizing our roadmap and 3D obviously is still on it. We see the same customers asking for it. It is more concrete for us and them, with the same level of urgency.”What likely is happening is that 3D is in transition – the theme of the year — from the early stage in which the hype is great and the huge potential foremost in operators’ minds to the real world of implementation, which is filled with challenges. Winkler explains that there are myriad tricky details, such as ad insertion (either 2D ads into 3D programming or 3D into 3D). Subtitling is another tricky issue. “It’s amazing how complicated it is to get subtitling right in 3D because of the depth you have,” he says.The bottom line is that the ramp up to 3D will be long. Coming to grips with these issues while dealing more immediately pressing matters – and waiting for 3D set penetration to be deep enough to justify dedication of more than marginal bandwidth – was responsible for the a bit of cold water thrown in the face of the 3D movement.

Cellular Backhaul

Some of BGR's earlier coverage of cellular backhaul can be found here.Perhaps the most promising and immediate way to increase cable operators’ revenue is not nearly as high profile as 3D or the revenues that EBIF will generate. It is using cable’s plant to backhaul cellular traffic.However, when the stress and strain that the almost astronomical growth of wireless data traffic is putting on cellular networks, cable’s opportunity becomes obvious. The bottom line is that many cellular carriers need the cable industry. It doesn’t hurt that cable’s technical reputation has improved in the last decade.In early July, Stu Lahti, VP of access networks at service provider CCI Systems, said that the company was on track to write 40 to 50 proposals in 2010. That seemed like quite a jump: The company wrote about 10 in 2009 and only one or two annually before that.Lahti probably was never happier to be wrong. “Instead of 40, we’ve probably done 150 proposals for various customers to tie in their existing infrastructure,” he says now. “It has far exceeded our expectations.”The good news is that demand is coming from all over the country, from operators of all sizes and is a mix of new customers and new orders from existing customers. “Next year is going to be better than this year,” Lahti believes.


Some of BGR's earlier coverage of the CALM Act can be found here.It’s strange to think of Congress actually getting something done, but it has happened. The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act — which aims to standardize volume between commercials and the content for which people tune in — had teetered on the brink of approval for much of the year. It passed on Dec. 2.Actually, the House and the Senate already had passed the bill. The two were slightly different, so a revote was required in the House on the Senate version, which passed and created a standardized bill and can be sent to President Obama. He is expected to sign it into law.The law will mandate that within one year of passage the FCC use the A/85 best practice recommendation from the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) as a standard for digital TV volume. The bottom line: Good news for vendors, good news for subscribers, good news for cable systems’ marketing departments – and one more thing for engineering departments to worry about.The cable industry seems to have had a pretty good year considering the frightful state of the economy. It appears that next year – with the continued pressure from OTT programmers – will be, perhaps, an even sterner test.Carl Weinschenk is the features editor at BGR. Reach him at[email protected].