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CTOs: Cable Has Bandwidth to Compete

Boosting Internet service to 100 Megabits per second, switching on lightly viewed cable networks only when requested and gradually converting to all-digital networks will give cable operators the bandwidth necessary to compete against satellite and telephone companies.

That was the assessment of chief technology officers at Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications Inc. who appeared together on a technical panel at the National Show in Atlanta last week.

The confidence comes in the face of several developments, including DirecTV Inc.’s plans to launch two more satellites, able to carry 150 channels of high-definition programming, in early 2007. On the telco front, AT&T Inc. intends to use Internet Protocol technology to deliver what it says will be an unlimited amount of channels, beginning shortly in San Antonio, Texas. And the other big telephone company, Verizon Communications Inc., is laying fiber across its footprint to deliver higher-speed Internet access and video services.

PLATFORM PRIDE

“We treat them seriously,” said Comcast Corp. chief technical officer Dave Fellows, “but we have a pretty good platform.

Verizon is taking fiber right up to each house it serves, then using conventional coaxial cable inside the home to link TV sets, Fellows said.

Cable, by comparison, has a more economically sound approach, he said. Fiber is used as a backbone and may stop miles short of the home. “We are fiber to where it makes money,” Fellows said.

That allows more effective, tactical use of fiber. “We have fiber-rich architectures and we can make surgical investments that anticipate consumer demand,” said Mike LaJoie, chief technology officer of Time Warner Cable.

Cox Communications chief technology officer Chris Bowick said Cox had looked at building fiber-to-the-home architecture in parts of its New Orleans system destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“We looked at everything possible and costed it all out and came back to hybrid fiber cable coaxial, because it is an absolutely extensible architecture for the future,” Bowick said.

DirecTV said it would be able to offer 1,500 channels next year, including 500 HD channels, but Fellows and LaJoie said cable can match those offerings, depending how the math is tabulated. “I have 6,000 channels in Atlanta,” Fellows said, with 5,800 VOD choices and 200 traditional linear channels.

If programmers develop more high-definition channels, cable will be able to carry them, LaJoie said, because of its switched digital video architecture. In such systems, networks that aren’t viewed often are not sent all the way to the home, until at least one customer requests it.

2006 PRIORITIES

Rolling out switched technology will be one of Time Warner Cable’s priorities this year, LaJoie said. Instead of broadcasting all 150 channels of a cable lineup to each home, the company broadcasts only the most heavily used channels. At hub locations serving roughly 20,000 homes, another 60 or 80 channels will be switched on or off only when needed. That will save bandwidth that can be used to deliver other services to homes, LaJoie said.

“We’re switching now in three cities and it’s really going quite well,” LaJoie said. The markets include Columbia, S.C., and Austin, Texas, he said.

The company will add four to six more markets this year, he said. “In Columbia we have 65,000 digital subscribers and the entire digital simulcast is switched,” he said.

The cable company also will roll out the Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP) in 2006, LaJoie said. OCAP is a set of software that sits in the headend and links applications, such as interactive television services, with software in set-top boxes and cable-ready television sets.

The software will serve as a bridge, allowing cable to roll out new services such as interactive gaming or opinion polling on any set-top or TV set, regardless of manufacturer. OCAP would also allow a consumer who purchased a cable-ready TV set to move to another market and use the same device on a different cable system, much as a satellite subscriber can do today.

Fellows said Comcast’s “tactical” priorities include expanding the company’s telephony services, pushing Internet access speeeds to between eight and 16 megabits a second and completing the development of the new set-top boxes purchased from Panasonic and Samsung.

On the strategic side, Fellows listed rolling out wireless service and moving towards bonding channels together. Bonding will allow Comcast to send Web pages, Internet video and other data services to subscribers at a speed of 100 megabits a second.

Bowick said his priorities included adding new telephone subscribers using Cox’s Internet protocol backbone, development of wireless services and “the incremental rollout of video on demand.”

Cox has tested the switching of video signals in one market to date; and will deploy the service in two unnamed markets this year, Bowick said.

But, he said, “it’s not taking on the sense of urgency like simulcast,’’ where a cable operator simultaneously sends the standard analog signal of a popular network and the digital signal, as well. “We really want to get that out fairly quickly,’’ he said.

Switching can be tricky, Bowick said. “I also want to make sure we get it right.”

While expressing respect for their telephone competitors, the CTOs said the game now was to take away their customers — and to protect cable’s own.

“They have almost 95% of my telephone subscribers, and that is something I intend to correct over time,” Fellows said.

Added LaJoie: “They have a much bigger pie for us to go after. Fiber is all they have to talk about.

“There is no service they can launch that we can’t. Our challenge is to maintain that leadership position,” he said.

LaJoie also took issue with Internet companies, like Google Inc., using the “Net Neutrality” phrase for political gain. There is nothing “public” about the Internet, he said. It is “an unmanaged federation of privately managed networks,” he said.

And because it’s based on a best-efforts communications scheme, LaJoie said certain bits get through faster than other bits today. Routers from the same company, like Cisco Systems Inc., pass through bits faster than bits that travel through routers owned by different companies, he said.