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Comcast to Take IPTV for a Spin

When Comcast starts kicking the tires on a high-speed cable-modem technology later this year, it will also experiment with a new way of driving TV programming over its networks: using Internet protocol.

At the company’s biennial investor conference, chief technology officer Tony Werner said the operator expects to test equipment based on Cable Television Laboratories’ Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 3.0 later this year.

“The technology should be available so we can deploy [DOCSIS 3.0] where and when we want to next year, if there are business cases to do it,” he added.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is high on the technology. On the company’s first-quarter earnings call, he noted that he plans to demonstrate on stage at The Cable Show 2007 “where we’re going as an industry” with DOCSIS 3.0, which, he added, will “turbo-charge today’s experience into a super broadband experience.”

DOCSIS 3.0, the latest iteration of cable’s data-networking standard, provides the ability to virtually glue together multiple 6-megahertz channels to act as if they were a single channel. These bonded channels will allow the next generation of cable-modem equipment to provide downstream speeds up to 100 megabits per second and even higher.

“Everybody understands that it allows us to increase our speed fairly substantially,” Werner said.

Comcast will also check to see how effectively those big pipes can deliver video.

In one of its DOCSIS 3.0 trials, the operator will provide voice, video and data over a single, high-bandwidth IP connection, according to a presentation by Mark Francisco, director of engineering/home services for Comcast New Media Development, at CableLabs’ winter technology conference in March.

This converged-services trial, in a system that serves 50,000 homes passed, will include an IP-video headend and DOCSIS 3.0 set-top boxes built to the operator’s Residential Network Gateway requirements, Francisco said, according to an industry consultant who was in attendance. RNG is Comcast’s effort to standardize set-top hardware platforms. The IP-video headend will be connected to a 10-gigabit-per-second backhaul link.

The test bed will also include other network-connected devices, such as Sling Media’s Slingbox, dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones and mobile handsets capable of playing video, according to Francisco’s presentation.

Comcast declined to provide more information about the IPTV trial.

Until early 2008, CableLabs-certified DOCSIS 3.0 equipment will not exist. The industry research-and-development organization expects to begin testing the first wave of DOCSIS 3.0 headend and modem gear starting in October.

At the investor conference, Werner said he expects DOCSIS 3.0 equipment to be significantly cheaper than current cable-modem systems on a cost-per-bit basis.

Based on Comcast’s early range of equipment estimates, DOCSIS 3.0 gear will cost 70% less per subscriber than 2.0 equipment to deliver the same 6-mbps bandwidth tier. In addition, a 100-mbps tier delivered with DOCSIS 3.0 headend equipment would be roughly the same cost as today’s 6-mbps tier, according to Werner.

“DOCSIS 3.0 is in the first opportunity the cable-modem manufacturers have had in a long time to do another cost-reduced version of the technology,” he said.