Coax Lives! SCTE's Howard on How HFC Is Adapting for Next-Gen Services

What’s hot on the technology agenda at the 2012 Cable Show? You can expect to see a continuation of the big trends that have been percolating the last few years: multiscreen video, ultra-fast broadband, new user interfaces and dynamic advertising.

But underlying those applications, a key area the cable-tech world will be focused on is extending the life of the venerable hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) network — in new and innovative ways, says Daniel Howard, CTO for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers. I spoke with him recently to pick his brain about what he’ll be looking for at the show later this month in Boston.

Multichannel News: You’re leading one of the tracks at the Spring Technical Forum, “HFC 2.0: The Evolution of Architecture.” What will be the highlights of that session?

Daniel Howard: It’s really part of a theme you’ll see throughout the show, which is that there is no foreseeable expiration date for HFC. We’re finding all kinds of new ways to squeeze more capacity out of the network.

In my session in particular, we’ll be talking about moving the IP demarc[ation point] closer to the edge. It turns out the HFC network is well positioned to do just that. HFC, and coax specifically, is one of those things where the rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

MCN: What has happened to give more runway to HFC?

DH: One of the things I’m interested in lately is, we are making this transition to the all-IP network a lot faster than we expected. A lot of that is because tablets, smartphones and the delivery of IP video to devices has really accelerated the move to the all-IP network that we’ve envisioned for many years.

With that happening sooner, we’re getting away from sending the same content multiples times — over QAM SD, QAM HD and IP video. It’s getting to the point where it’s all IP, it’s unicast, and you only have to send one copy to the user.

MCN: It’s the logical conclusion of switched digital video, right?

DH: Yes, switched digital takes us halfway down that path. When you go all-IP, everything will be unicast. And as you move faster toward this unicast model, you can take advantage of the fact that the devices consuming IP video use H.264 MPEG-4, and that gives you greater efficiencies.

Another trend we’re seeing that’s helping us is this faster move toward Metro Ethernet for business customers, and being able to start using Wi-Fi access off fiber nodes. You can offload the high-consuming customers and go after them surgically — so they don’t eat up the capacity of the HFC network.

MCN: We’ve heard a lot of hype about 1 Gigabit per second broadband speeds. Google, for instance, is building out its fiber-to-the-home experiment in Kansas City. But how realistic are 1-Gig connections in terms of market demand?

DH: Well, it’s limited right now, is the right way to say it. For the most part, it’s business customers. And one of those solutions is Metro Ethernet, which is fiber to the premises — that lets you go up to 10 Gig if you need to.

MCN: Is there a point at which cable will need to run fiber to the home, or will that never be in the offing?

DH: It’s hard to say never. But I’d say it’s a lot farther off than people predicted even five years ago. You have solutions like DOCSIS over PON [passive optical network] and Metro Ethernet to leverage surgical strikes with fiber. We have the situation where 10% or 20% of the customers consume 80% or 90% of the bandwidth. As long as you can address these folks with surgical solutions, the operators will be happy with the organic growth of the HFC network.

MCN: You mentioned IP video as one of the drivers toward freeing up bandwidth. But doesn’t delivering that in addition to broadcast video add more capacity strain to the network?

DH: Let’s be technically accurate about that. IP video actually adds a little overhead on top of conventional MPEG-2 transport. But in terms of much more rapidly eliminating the simulcast of MPEG-2 content, that does free up capacity. DOCSIS 3.0 doesn’t add more capacity. You get statistical multiplexing especially when you get to six and above channels, but it has more to do with providing faster burst rates.

MCN: But cable operators can’t afford to strand millions of legacy set-tops as they migrate toward all-IP.

DH: That’s absolutely right. And the need to keep those MPEG-2 streams has been extended by folks like Comcast deploying these digital transport adapters, which initially were MPEG-2-only. But you know, as more people shift to the tablet model, the everything-on-demand model — and you’ll see a lot of that at the Cable Show — that’s accelerating the move away from the old analog TVs. You can buy a tablet really cheap. I was in Costco and you can get an 8-inch tablet for under $200.

MCN: But that’s not a TV.

DH: But it’s Wi-Fi-enabled, so you can use Comcast’s Streampix [multiplatform streaming video service] and Time Warner Cable’s tablet app. Watch the younger generation, and see how they use tablets to watch TV.

MCN: In this brave new world, what happens to set-tops?

DH: That kind of depends on which cable operator you talk to. Some are aggressive. Cablevision is aggressive about moving everything to the cloud, with no more set-tops. Then you have Suddenlink, which is more interested in a gateway, a more intelligent set-top that drives content into the home. Then you have everything in between. Comcast is looking at a range of things.

But the set-top, that’s another thing people have forecast the demise of several times. I don’t see the need for the set-top going away.

One of the things that will give a push to the media gateways is that more and more networking in the home is becoming wireless. Close to 80% of broadband-powered homes have Wi-Fi in them. What that means is that as more of the connectivity in the home becomes wireless, it becomes even more important for a powerful gateway that has wireless built in. It’s not just phones and tablets, but also home-security monitoring — you have cameras in the home that are wirelessly connected.

MCN: Let me ask about set-top energy efficiency — Comcast, NCTA, CableLabs, SCTE and all the vendors are focused on this now. What happens next?

DH: First of all, it’s already happening, thanks to a partnership among CableLabs, NCTA and SCTE. We are making great strides across the board. CableLabs will be showing off set-tops with a “smart-sleep” mode, and other ways to drastically reduce the energy consumption of the set-top. Operators are moving things into the cloud, and you get lots of savings just form that architectural solution. SCTE will be talking about energy savings in the network. And you’ll see more interest in the [SCTE’s] SEMI [Smart Energy Management Initiative] program. Cable operators are fully embracing that initiative — we have 18 new standards from SCTE focused specifically on energy management. The energy story in cable just kicked into high gear.

MCN: So you’re going to take a few days off in Boston to see the sights, right?

DH: [Laughs] As we have learned, “CTO” can also stand for “chief traveling officer.” From the Cable Show, I’m headed to Poland for our first Central Europe chapter, and we’ll have a one-day symposium there. Then I’m heading to [the] ANGA [Cable Show] in Germany, and they are also seeing record numbers. Cable still seems to be quite popular despite its rumored lack of interest in new technologies.


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