Cable's IPTV Future

Cable-technology executives used to recoil at any mention of the term “IPTV.” A few years ago, Internet-protocol television was an architecture championed mainly by telcos — as a competitive threat to cable's core video services.

IPTV is no longer a four-letter word in cable circles. Increasingly for operators, the evolution to delivering video over an all-IP infrastructure is not a question of if, but when.

“IP hasn't lost many battles,” said Cox Communications executive vice president and chief technology officer Scott Hatfield. “The old joke is that the score is IP 398, everything else zero.”

There's now an expectation that cable providers will, at some point in the future, deliver all video services over IP. A move to IPTV would cut costs on the set-top side — by eliminating the need for tuners —while providing more capabilities, said Ken Lowe, senior vice president of strategic marketing at Sigma Designs, a manufacturer of chips for set-top boxes.

“It's become more and more apparent that IPTV is being looked at as a business decision by the cable operators, rather than a religious decision,” Lowe said.

The big questions right now: How quickly will cable go the IPTV route, and what form will the services take in the home? The pace at which the shift happens depends on an individual operator's “appetite for risk and appetite for expense,” said Buddy Snow, senior director of solutions marketing for Motorola's Broadband Home Solutions group. “We see a lot of variability out there.”

Before they go to a full IPTV architecture, cable operators are looking to mix and match, delivering supplemental IP video to the TV while the bulk of the linear lineup continues to be MPEG-2 video over quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) channels. Set-top box makers, including Cisco Systems and Motorola, have introduced hybrid QAM-IP devices that allow the blending of IP video using embedded DOCSIS cable modems.

“You need devices that are capable of delivering today's architecture but can migrate to tomorrow's architecture,” said Cisco director of service provider marketing for video Murali Nemani.

Last week, Arris made a push into the IP video-gateway arena, announcing the acquisition of Paul Allen's Digeo for $20 million in cash. Digeo's Moxi HD digital video recorder lets users access video and other media through an Internet connection, and Arris wants to embed that technology into a new class of converged home gateways.

The new line of Arris IP-enabled gateways will “blend Internet content with service-provider content … giving the subscriber a rich entertainment experience,” Arris Broadband Communications Systems business unit president Bruce McClelland said on a conference call with reporters.

Cable operators are starting to move beyond lab trials and actually deploying IP video gateways in the field, said Adam Powers, director of standards and emerging technology for Rovi, the electronics-middleware supplier formerly called Macrovision Solutions.

“The way it's being viewed now is, the residential gateway will provide Web services to the rest of the home — then, over time, you get rid of the legacy infrastructure so you don't need QAM modulation and CableCards,” he said.

But there are still many different ways to deliver a “cable IPTV” service to the home. Some approaches are geared around a gateway that distributes and transcodes video at the customer premises. Others use a DOCSIS bypass mechanism, in which IP video is sent directly over a QAM to a device so the cable-modem termination system isn't bogged down with that high-bandwidth traffic.

“There's not a level of consistency across the industry about how this will happen,” said Snow, adding that “there won't be 32 flavors … it's going to be vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.”

Another X-factor in the mix is cable's eventual move to the MPEG-4 video format. Snow suggested operators may introduce IP-based video to set-tops simultaneously with MPEG-4.

Even farther off, MSOs might introduce video over IP when they roll out a 3-D TV service, which would require even more bandwidth to deliver than HD video does, said BigBand Networks CEO Amir Bassan-Eskenazi. His company sells a CMTS bypass solution for IP video.

“Frankly, nobody can figure out what the shape of these services will be in the future,” he said. “But what [operators] really need is the ability to offer more services to one-up the competition, and do it in a simple way to cut their operating expenses.”

On a related trajectory, MSOs have been tapping IP to more efficiently distribute video to their headends. Cox, for example, has consolidated IP-video distribution over its backbone network, with national programming feeds originating from two data centers, one in Atlanta and another in San Diego, Hatfield said.

Similarly, earlier this month, United Kingdom cable operator Virgin Media announced a plan to migrate its legacy digital video-delivery infrastructure to IP, using Cisco equipment. When completely deployed, the new TV platform will be capable of serving more than 12.6 million homes across Virgin Media's footprint in the U.K.

“From the operators' perspective, they've been swallowing this cow one bite at a time,” Sigma Designs' Lowe said.