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CableLabs' Green Tackles TV's Tough Tech Issues

Cable modems—the always-running connection that replaced cumbersome dial-up—provided most consumers with their first truly fast and easy broadband service early this decade. Though now taken for granted, cable modems were a technical challenge when CableLabs—the industry's non-profit R&D consortium—began work in the late 1990s that led to the DOCSIS 1.0 (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) specs for interoperability, which allowed for mass-scale deployment by cable.

Since opening its doors in 1989, CableLabs (Cable Television Laboratories Inc.) has had just one president and CEO—Richard R. Green. Earlier in his career, Green worked at CBS' Advanced Television Technology Laboratory, PBS, Times Fiber Communications and Boeing Scientific Research Laboratories. His career also spans work in academia and government research.

CableLabs, with an annual budget reported at $50 million and based in Louisville, Colo., is funded by cable companies around the world, including Canada, Europe and Asia. Green talks to B&C's Robert Marich about the transition to digital, CableLabs' interactive TV initiative and future technology issues.

Could you talk about CableLabs' big new initiative, Tru2way technology [formerly called OCAP] for set-tops and digital TV sets, for which Time Warner Cable and Comcast have become early adopters?

Tru2way technology adds capability to TV that is similar to the interactivity you get on the Web. It's based on a Java format, so it's compatible with Blu-ray, for example. The technology is extendable to many other applications because of this common base. It may grow rapidly or take time to catch on. We're hoping it emerges rapidly.

Can cable match the blazing speeds that telcos offer for Web access? CableLabs certified DOCSIS 3.0 for cable modems with minimum downstream speeds of 160 MB and upstream of 120 MB, which is four-times the throughput speeds in the cable marketplace now.

On data capacity, we think we're ahead of the curve in what gives cable systems worldwide a product to compete.

What is the biggest challenge facing cable companies on the technology front?

One challenge is our ability to address business services. We're also looking at the next generation of packet cable, which has its basis in IP telephony. We have been studying ways to integrate wireless technology with our existing plant. WiMax has a similar technological basis as DOCSIS, so there are potential synergies.

With high-definition programming and Web video both increasing at an exponential rate, how will cable operators match the demand for increased capacity?

Cable has a transitional issue here, which does result in a capacity crunch in the short term. The reason is we carry both analog and digital signals, and the analog signals are inefficient in using bandwidth. But there are interim ways to mitigate this—such as switched digital video—as we move to full digital transition. Once we migrate to all digital, in my opinion, the capacity issues are resolved.

What do you see as CableLabs' biggest technical achievement during your tenure?

That's like asking who's your favorite of all your children. If you look at it from what has had the greatest impact on people, it would be the cable modem and the related IP telephony. The ITU [International Telecommunication Union] says that 40% of the high-speed subscribers in the world are served by cable modems. I'm also proud of our work in high-definition television. As you know, we were one of two labs that tested high-definition for the FCC.