The Service Provider Transformation to Software Provider – Highlights of the 2013 Cable Show

Service providers of all types are transforming from physical infrastructure companies to software companies, and cable operators are no different. This is the sense one was left with at the 2013 Cable Show. This three-day event, held in Washington D.C., provided operators and its association the opportunity to showcase this transformation from pipe providers to owners of a bandwidth ecosystem that is a platform for a variety of home-grown as well as complementary and, potentially even, competing third-party applications from over-the-top providers.

Charter’s Tom Rutledge put it in perspective when he suggested that, “Service is the operator’s content.” He wasn’t downplaying the role of video as content, but was suggesting that other services, whether home automation, enhanced voice or yet-to-be invented services are going to be the things that make for a sticky offering. The show was chock-full of examples of these types of services.

Comcast’s CEO, Brian Roberts, demonstrated and explained how cloud technologies are making the sum of Comcast’s services greater than their parts. Roberts described how their cloud is tying together disparate services into offerings that provide additional utility to the customer (e.g. home automation integrated as part of the TV screen), while improving efficiency (e.g. reduced truck roles). This cloud-centric approach allows Comcast to innovate and add features faster than ever. Roberts indicated there is an excitement in the company due to this transformation.

The X2 Entertainment Operating System he described and demonstrated relies on the cloud, as well as the RDK (Reference Design Kit) and new hardware pieces that include the XG5 headless (no direct connection to a TV) gateway, which features:

The existing XG1 box will be upgradable to the X2 EOS and will also serve as a whole-home DVR by allowing subtending of the Xi3 IP set-tops.

As mentioned by Humax, the time to develop new features, thanks to the Comcast-supported, open Reference Design Kit, has gone from months or years to literally days or weeks (good bye, OCAP). What impact RDK has on existing IPTV middleware providers remains to be seen, but it could be significant if non-cable operators take this approach. Traditional middleware may have a place in the RF world, however, as one provider indicated they have a limited number of customers running IPTV over DOCSIS 3.0.

As was widely reported, Comcast plans on partitioning bandwidth in their home Wi-Fi routers to allow public access. Although this would open potentially millions of hot spots and some of these signals might extend beyond the household for the public, the more common use-case described to this author by a Comcast representative is one where a homeowner would no longer have to open their home network to guests.

In a sense, what Comcast has developed is a distributed cloud architecture where the gateway becomes an in-home extension of Comcast’s network cloud. Roberts pointed out the importance of being able to push upgrades via software downloads to existing hardware.

Beyond these types of services, demonstrations of Ultra High Definition displays at the show point to a future that requires even greater bandwidth than what is needed today. Both Samsung and Comcast showed the latest in these eye-popping displays. Although standards are somewhat fluid (e.g. frame rates, color depth and even resolution) and it is not clear whether consumers will adopt these new TVs tomorrow, these screens and the content production equipment are much further down the cost curve than was HD at this point in its rollout.

Bandwidth demands could be one of the big impacts for operators, as the Comcast demonstration featured an A/B comparison of an Ultra HD stream compressed to 50 Mb/s via MPEG 4 and 12 MB/s using h.265, High Efficiency Video Codec at 12 Mb/s. Even with great compression, the bandwidth shoots up to what was seen in the early days of HDTV.

And with demonstrations of Gigabit DOCSIS, it is clear that cable operators and their vendors see the need for continued improvements in the physical infrastructure. Still, as long as there are active components in the field, the full business transformation from outside plant operators to broadband platform providers that adapt at the speed of software will be limited to the components between the home and the headend. The evolution will continue until such a time when fiber is the only connection between the operators’ data centers and their extension into the home.

No matter what type of service provider you are, the Cable Show was yet another venue to remind you of the value of software and need for bandwidth, now and well into the future.

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