Best of NCTA Tech Papers: Part I

If you’re into big, chewy technical documents that occasionally reveal as much in strategy as they do in tech-speak, run — don’t walk — to the annual Spring Technical Forum papers, put out by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers.

If you’re not into big, chewy technical documents, fear not. This week’s translation condenses the interesting nuggets in this year’s haul of 34 papers and presentations.

Let’s start with the biggie that is Big Data. How big is big in cable? Put aside data coming from customer care, billing and other, sexier sources. Consider just the tiny sliver of cable’s data warehouse that is the digital video switch.

According to Cisco’s Marthin De Beer and Kip Compton, who penned “Big Data: Capitalizing on Untapped Knowledge,” every 1 million cable subscribers generates a honkin’ 2,400 Gigabytes (GB) of data per day, through switches.

That means that an operator with 25 million subscribers would generate 87,600 GB (which is the same as 87.6 Terabytes, abbreviated TB) of data per year, just through the switch, the authors said.

To put that in perspective, Walmart handled more than 1 million transactions per hour last year, feeding a database of 2.5 Petabytes (the next order-of-magnitude step after Terabytes, abbreviated PB).

To Google, which was processing 20 PB a day way back in 2008, these numbers are chump change. But it’s an early and interesting look at the size of “big” when it comes to plant metrics.

Also interesting: “Advanced Menu Usage and System Architecture: Impacts on User Behavior,” co-authored by Jim Brown of Buckeye Cable and Carol Ansley (the queen of gateways) and Scott Shupe of Arris. The paper studied the behaviors of people working with newer, advanced guides vs. users of traditional, grid-based guides.

They looked at channel changes, as well as DVR and VOD usage, across both types of navigation. Among the findings: 10% of subscribers order a two-hour movie every week. Only 70% of DVR recordings are actually viewed. Even though the average number of set-tops per home is 2.6, only 1.5 are active at any given time.

As for new guide vs. old, the results were startlingly unstartling: “Subscribers will continue using familiar technologies, such as a grid guide, but also will gradually accept new user interfaces.”

(True where I live, and at the lab: I have to remind myself to use the phone or tablet app to navigate rather than reaching for the remote.)

For upstream path junkies, check out “Making Rational HFC Upstream Migration Decisions in the Midst of Chaos” (bottom line: Go to 85 MHz for the least disruption), by Dean Stoneback and Fred Slowik, both with Arris, as well as “Distributed HFC Digital Architecture Expands Bi-Directional Capacity,” by Aurora Networks’ Oleh Sniekzo, Doug Combs, and Rei Brockett.

Also in this year’s batch: Tons of getting ready for DOCSIS 3.1. Tons of “Software Defined Networking,” or SDN (described as “the solution to all of our problems!” at a Rocky Mountain SCTE meeting last month).

There’s more, which is why a Part II to the papers is in the works.

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