Jottings From SCTE Cable-Tec Expo

TV becomes an app, headends become “data centers,” VOD storage gets hierarchical. Conditional access meets digital-rights management, set-tops morph into gateways, “soft clients” become the way to get the TV app onto nontraditional screens.

That’s a sampling of notes from the Oct. 20-22 SCTE Cable Tec-Expo, in New Orleans, where engineers gathered to figure out how to build all the stuff that’s coming.

Let’s start with the “soft client” - the thing you’ll click to get to your TV subscription or ondemand title from your other screens (tablets, smartphones, laptops). All together, North American cable operators buy something like 10 million digital set-tops per year. Portable screens, laptops and tablets could easily enter homes at two or three times that rate.

Hence the need for a “soft” set-top. Conversationally, it goes like this: “Where’s your API (Application Program Interface)? I’ll build a button!”

In the on-demand world, it’s hard to go two sentences in without bumping into “CDNs” (content delivery networks). Once the exclusive bastion of companies like Akamai as a way to move and keep popular stuff closest to users, cable operators are rapidly building their own vats of hierarchical storage: a few big, centralized “library servers,” feeding the most popular content out to local VOD servers.

Big changes ahead for the headend, too. For the past two decades, they’ve been consolidating, mostly because of advancements in optical techniques to blast signals 50 miles or farther.

Now, and as characterized in the spookily titled “Death of the Headend: How IP Will Transform Cable Services,” presented by Cisco Systems’ Dave Brown, racks of servers make up the scene; “Web services” provide easier links into legacy back-office systems.

But I’m guessing at least one vestige will remain, though - those phones with the really, really long cords, so as to reach the farthest rack when troubleshooting.