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Cable Show 2009: Technologists Outline Next-Generation Services

Complete Cable Show 2009 coverage from Multichannel News

Executives from several major technology vendors, along with a promising young academic, gathered Wednesday at the Cable Show '09 session "Highly Individual: Content Protection & Delivery in the Digital Era" to describe their work in both monitoring the flow of illegal content across broadband pipes and in bringing new services to the cable television plant.

Craig Cuttner, senior vice president of advanced technology for HBO, moderated the discussion, which kicked off with a presentation by Kevin Bauer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado, who has been researching peer-to-peer network technology such as BitTorrent. Bauer noted that despite efforts by programmers and operators to cut down on the illegal distribution of content through bandwidth-hogging, file-sharing applications, peer-to-peer remains the most common class of traffic on the Internet today, with most of it being video.

Bauer described the investigations into illegal peer-to-peer activity led by firms such as Media Sentry and TSP, which track down individual IP addresses engaged in such activity. These firms then typically pass along a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown letter to the consumer's ISP, which can then be forwarded to the consumer to encourage them to stop the practice.

But Bauer said that identifying users within a peer-to-peer network like BitTorrent can be challenging, as querying tracker lists can give many false positives, because of the way peer-to-peers generate arbitrary IP addresses.

While ISPs have been able to identify BitTorrent traffic and throttle it down or block it, as Comcast has with its Sandvine peer-to-per management technology, that may be getting harder to do as more and more BitTorrent traffic is encrypted. Bauer said a new encryption technology call Tor, based on a series of decentralized routers that each peel away a layer of encryption, can help mask peer-to-peer users.

The use of technologies like Tor, said Bauer, raise the possibility of file-sharing "becoming completely anonymous and untraceable." He suggested that ISPs start to focus their anti-piracy efforts less on detection efforts and more on cost reductions for broadband services based on bandwidth usage and other economic incentives that discourage file-sharing.

Niels Thorwirth, director of media security for condition access and watermarking firm Verimatrix, showed various ways that watermarks can be embedded in video. He also described a new watermarking approach that Verimatrix has developed that inserts a watermark into video when it is decoded and decrypted at the set-top level. That watermark can then be used to read content that's been illegally distributed after it leaves the set-top box, such as making its way onto the Internet. But like Bauer, he thought changing consumers' mind-sets regarding piracy would be more successful than using technology to track down offenders.

"Finding the people isn't the goal," says Thorwirth. "It's about changing consumer perception."

Moving onto new services, Andrew Poole, chief software architect for Arris, described research the company hadone into making social-networking applications and user-generated content from Web sites like MySpace and Facebook available on the TV set by leveraging existing cable video-on-demand systems.

Poole noted that while 96% of consumers indicate they prefer watching video on the TV set over other platforms, last year there were some 34 billion views of user-generated content in the U.S.

Given that user-generated content is predominantly being viewed on PCs, "it's competing with TV programs in terms of viewership," he said. Since that trend is likely to change, Arris has explored using existing subscriber management systems to deliver video server-based social networking, a concept Poole described broadly as "My (TV) Space."

"Is there a way to bring social networking and UGC content to TV through cable?" asked Poole.

He believes there is. For example, a consumer could upload user-generated content to a social networking site, and that social networking site could then interact with the cable VOD system to pass the video over. A cable subscriber could then use the cable VOD system to view their friend's video on the TV.

Poole says such an application could be supported locally within a given cable system, or even nationally by having cable companies work together to share UGC content among their subscriber bases, a proposition Poole jokingly referred to as the "United Federation of Cable Systems."

"It sounds far-fetched, but the vast majority of equipment that would be required is available today," said Poole.

John Chapman, a Cisco Fellow and chief architect of the company's access and transport technology group who has been deeply involved in DOSCIS technology development, wrapped up the panel by describing Cisco's efforts to bring its "telepresence" technology, which enables life-like video conferencing experiences through the use of high-definition cameras and displays, to the cable plant. He demonstrated the power of the technology with a Cisco commercial depicting average citizens in Xian, China and Rome, Italy interacting with each through a live videoconference over giant 1080-line-progressive high-definition screens.

Chapman has actually set up a "TelePresence over DOSCIS" system in his home, and said it works well, as long as a user can guarantee 2 to 6 megabits per second of dedicated bandwidth in each direction.

For MSOs selling 50 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream broadband service, such "best-effort" telepresence over DOSCIS would be viable. But trying to use lower-speed connections to deliver the "immersive experience" of telepresence would require a more managed network approach to guarantee quality of service, he said.