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Getting Wired For Innovation

Since CableLabs' creation in 1988, the cable industry's technology development arm has played a key role in the evolution of digital multichannel TV, high speed data services, interactive advertising and many other technologies that continue to transform the TV industry, particularly in the area of advanced advertising and the delivery of content to multiple devices.

In 2009, CableLabs' current president and CEO Paul Liao took over from Dick Green, the legendary founding head of the organization who played such a key role in its first two decades in business. Liao arrived at CableLabs from a distinguished career in the consumer electronics industry, where he was vice president and chief technology officer for Panasonic Corp. of North America. Liao has since worked to build on the organization's strengths by expanding its work on IP technology, multiplatform delivery of content, highspeed data and other areas.

George Winslow, B&C contributing editor, sat down with Liao in advance of the Cable Show 2011 in Chicago to discuss key technologies broadcasters should be keeping an eye on.

What are some of the key things that CableLabs has been focusing on going into the cable show?

One of the key technologies is advanced advertising. Advertising is moving very quickly to technologies and platforms that can do two things: target advertising to specific customers and second, measure whether the advertisement was actually delivered and, ideally, measure whether some transaction was generated as a result.

What cable has been doing for the last few year is creating a platform that can work across the whole footprint of digital cable devices to target the advertising, to measure what happens and to initiate an action so you know the advertising had some effect.

There is the old saw that I know that 50% of my advertising doesn't work-I just don't know which it is.

The digital cable platform is really changing that. The digital set-top is really ideal for creating a better advertising platform, given the fact that consumers spend something like seven hours a day in front of the TV. We have been working hard on that and in the last year there have been some exciting things that have happened. One key thing is putting in what is called the user agent, which is a small piece of software that goes into the digital box. That allows a programmer to write a simple application that it will run across all boxes, no matter what make or vintage they are.

At the time, there is the crossover to other devices like PCs, game consoles, smart TVs and so on. So the ability to have a consumer take an action not only with the TV ad, but also with all these other devices is a major direction. Another big direction is the ability to use the technology of the internet, things like IP protocol, to deliver services, not only to set-tops but also to other devices-smart TVs, smart phones, tablets, etc.

Last year at the NCTA show Brian Roberts [the chairman and CEO of Comcast] gave a demonstration of using an iPad as kind of a remote control, and since then things have gone really beyond that with the ability to deliver programming directly to smart devices. At CES, Time Warner Cable was showing the ability to take a smart TV and get direct access to cable programming through the smart TV without a set-top box using that Internet connection. You'll see more of that at the Cable Show. There will be a special section of the CableLabs booth that will feature a lot of these things.

One of the interesting things about those developments is that we have had a program called tru2way or OCAP [OpenCable Application Platform] for a long time. This area is really beginning to blossom, in part because it is a programmable set-top platform that allows the operators to run the same software across products from multiple vendors. CableLabs has worked up reference implementation of that middleware, a sort of operating system for the set-top. This reference implementation is now being deployed by the operators, especially Comcast, and it is really providing a kind of common approach that the industry can take.

To me, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that it is a programmable platform. You can take a client that is using the technology of the Internet, IP technology and Web services technologies, and begin to bring the power of those technologies to the set-top. That is freeing the cable industry from the restrictions of and limitations of the traditional set-top box.

You have probably heard about the Parker [Web/TV] box that Comcast has on trial in their Southern Division. That is a tru2way box that runs an IP client and it allows them to bring a user experience that consumers are now used to getting on IP devices like PCs right to the set-top and TV.

The other area that is very very exciting for us is the expansion of the cable industry efforts to deliver telecommunications, video and especially data to commercial businesses. That is the fastest growing area of the cable business and . . . here at CableLabs, we have been spending a lot of our time developing the technologies so cable companies can provide those services to business easily, quickly and efficiently. ....Of course the foundation of our business is the network itself....The digital HFC network that has been built over the years, at the cost of some $170 billion or some huge number is extremely evolvable and flexible and we want to keep pushing that forward.

We were very pleased to have won an Emmy this year [in January at CES] for DOCSIS 3.0. That is beginning to provide over 100 megabytes per second services for people who have cable broadband. And we are pushing it beyond that. The traffic is already increasing at an incredible rate, over 20% to 40% a year. That means you are talking about the need for an enormous growth in the data capacity.

To do that, we really need to reduce the cost of the equipment that provides this service. So there are various technology approaches . . . and we are in the process of converging those so the vendors know what to build to.

The whole aim of that is to create a structure that [is] both lower cost and high performance. Lower cost in terms of the space it takes and how much energy it requires, because energy consumption is a major issue these days.

The access network is really moving quickly not only on wire-line side but also on the wireless side. Our member companies are deploying Wi-Fi networks and these wireless technologies are an intimate and critical part of the whole access story. So, we are looking at every part of that.

A lot of broadcasters don't go to the Cable Show, but if they did attend, what kind of developments should they be looking at that would be important to their businesses?

One of the areas I think is particularly exciting is the ability to leverage all of these consumer products, whether PCs or smart phones or tablets or whatever, in a home network.

CableLabs is now is a member of the board of the DLNA [Digital Living Network Alliance] and we are really pushing hard to get a number of technologies that we think will be critical as we move forward adopted across the ecosystem-whether it be TV, Website operators, consumer electronics manufacturers, set-top box manufacturers, cable operators.

One of these is IPv6. The industry has run out of IPv4 addresses and we really have to make the move to IPv6 shortly. The problem is that IPv6 and IPv4 are not compatible with each other. It would be good if all the broadcasters would begin to establish IPv6 Websites so as consumers move to IPv6 products, they will be able to able to access IPv6 Websites. It is not a Y2K problem, in the sense that everything will collapse on a certain day, but we want to avoid a situation where people can't get access to services.

We would also like to move to software-based DRMs, instead of complex conditional access technology. We would like to move towards remote user interfaces, so that you can deliver a program guide or whatever out of the cloud, and there are various ways of doing the adaptive bit-rate streaming, which we would like to get standardized and adopted.

Another big challenge for the industry is the need for a universal content identifier. As consumers are empowered to access enormously deep libraries across multiple platforms and multiple providers, there needs to be a common way to identify the video assets. So CableLabs, along with MovieLabs and other companies has established a thing called the Entertainment Identifier Registry. Its purpose is to create a single common universal identifier for video assets. We are encouraging other companies to join this entity so it will be much easier to access content on different devices.

You mentioned that Time Warner Cable and Comcast are moving forward with services that would deliver their cable line-up to smart TVs without a set-top box. At the same time, the Advanced Television Systems Committee is moving forward with developing the ATSC 2.0 standard that assumes most TVs will be connected to the Internet. Is there some crossover in those two efforts?

I personally believe that over time, the proliferation of the smart TV, these network connected TVs, will become an increasingly important way for content to be delivered. I think it is a good opportunity for the cable industry to work closely with the broadcasters.

Another area where I think we need to work together is in the whole 3D area. CableLabs issued a specification for 3D. Right now it is not the full 1080p for both eyes but as we look forward to the future, we really need to work together to maximize that consumer experience. To the degree we can synchronize what is happening in the choice of formats for over-the-air content with over-the-wire and make them as compatible as possible, will make it much simpler.

You talked about advanced advertising systems that can target specific areas and demographics as being one of your most important technology priorities at CableLabs. How fast do you see those systems moving into the marketplace?

The first step was to actually get the network ready so that this could be done. Initially, people were a little too naive about that. It turns out that getting a digital signal to flow all the way through the network is not as trivial as one might think.

So, we've spent a lot of time over the last year and a half cleaning the pipes to make sure the signal can go all the way through and back again.

And now we are reaching the point where there are tens of millions of these set-tops that are enabled to handle what is called EBIF [Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format for enhanced or interactive TV]. It is really changing the landscape and I think we are beginning to see real positive results.

It means that local broadcasters can begin to put interactive things within their program stream, to add interactive elements in their local news broadcast for example, that would make their offering much more attractive to their cable viewers.

That would seem to be one of a number of potential alliances between broadcasters and cable operators that didn't exist just two or three years ago.

Yes. Another simple example is with program promotion. Some of the broadcast networks also have cable networks and in the past, you would cross-promote them by putting up advertisements. Now you can cross-promote them [with an interactive application] that gives you a way to cross-promote your programming in a way you could never dream of doing before on cable systems.

Another thing is for local advertising. You could link up a Chinese restaurant and have a consumer respond immediately [to an interactive ad]. There is also a whole world of widgets that you can talk about and think about now. This is something that can be delivered to almost everyone's digital set-top and it is really exciting.

How do you see tablets changing the TV landscape?

I think tablets are very interesting but I would broaden tablets to include the smart phone because the smart phone is a small tablet.

First, it brings another screen into the home, an additional outlet. Before people were limited to the number of TV sets in the home; now they can have more outlets and these things are portable and they can be brought into any room in the home. So they provide another device for broadcast and cable programming. Companies like Cablevision and Time Warner Cable are beginning to provide their complete or close to their complete lineup of cable programming through those devices.

The second thing is that it is really a personal device. Up to now, the cable industry had served households. But here for the first time, they are serving a personal device, something you might keep with you all the time. It means the cable companies can think about how they should not only service households, but individuals and how they should customize that service to meet the needs of individuals in the household. That is really an exciting new frontier.

The third aspect of these platforms is that they offer the ability to have a synchronized experience with the TV show. Last year at the Cable Show [Brian Roberts' demonstration of using the iPad as remote control taps into] the magic of EBIF. [That same application] also allows you to watch a program and share it and communicate with friends [using instant messages and] the tablet....That ability to bring community features to television in a way that Facebook has brought community to the Internet is really exciting and it is happening because you have these network-connected devices.

If you try to do that on the TV screen itself, your spouse would go crazy, having those instant messages pop up on the screen. So, having a separate device and another screen for interactivity and community really opens up all kinds of new opportunities that will really change the way we view TV.

Do technologies like that also really change the relationship between cable operators and broadcasters because it would allow broadcasters to add these community features and interactivity to their programming?

That is right. In fact, if I were a broadcaster, I would try to increase my interaction with cable companies and also with CableLabs to bring those technologies into their broadcast-things like the EBIF applications and so on. Many of their viewers are getting their programming over cable and if they were to incorporate those technologies, they could take advantage of that two-way network that the cable industry has evolved over the last few years.

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