Q&A: Charter CTO Marwan Fawaz

Marwan Fawaz already has a lengthy to-do list for 2009. The Charter Communications chief technology officer, among other things, expects the company to launch “wideband” cable modem service and expand switched digital video deployments -- while also managing the digital TV broadcast transition in February. 

Fawaz recently spoke with Multichannel News technology editor Todd Spangler on a range of topics, including DOCSIS 3.0, HDTV and going all-digital. The interview took place prior to the news that CableLabs CEO Dick Green will retire in December 2009. Asked later to comment, Fawaz said, "For 20 years, Dick's passion and commitment have driven product innovations for our customers and his vision and leadership at CableLabs have created business opportunities for our industry."

MCN: How does Charter plan to deploy DOCSIS 3.0 [which provides download speeds of 50 Mbps or more]? Time Warner Cable has talked about using it “surgically” to respond competitively, while Comcast is looking to more broadly capture bandwidth leadership. 

Marwan Fawaz: I’m not sure I see a big difference in the strategies. We believe DOCSIS 3.0 is an important technology for maintaining the broadband connectivity lead in the industry. We’re in the process of getting a few markets piloted, and it will be part of our 2009 planning. We’re not doing a massive market launch to our entire footprint -- we’ll get there in the next few years. The way we look at it is, 3.0 lets us keep that lead on the speeds and stay ahead of competitors in the markets we serve.

MCN: Last year Charter said it would roughly double its high-definition channel lineup in 2008, to more than 40 across its entire footprint. Will you hit that target? 

MF: We’re adding a significant amount of HD channels, but it really varies based on market. We’re adding what we believe are the right channels. And we’re not necessarily adding just linear channels -- we’re adding on-demand. We went from zero HD on-demand options last year to more than 300 HD VOD options today. We have a significant advantage [over satellite TV operators] in on-demand.

MCN: Charter and five other major MSOs have pledged to deploy tru2way interactive TV technology and have launched the Canoe Ventures advanced advertising initiative. But interactive TV has always been “just around the corner.” What’s different this time?

MF: For a long time, the business case for interactive TV hadn’t completely materialized. There’s a point in time right now where there are applications and services that make a lot of sense. We all have done significant planning to launch those services. 

Interactive TV is a lot more efficient with standards like EBIF [Enhanced Television Binary Interchange Format] and tru2way. There are standard ways to get the product out there, so developers can write once and get it launched across all MSOs. If you look five years ago, that wasn’t the case. And we’ve already done a lot of work in the advanced advertising space. We’ve done work in L.A. [with set-top data collection] and in St. Louis with dynamic ad insertion. We have a lot of experience with that, and we’ll be helping Canoe scale that.

MCN: With the February 2009 digital TV transition now less than five months away, how prepared is Charter from a technical perspective? 

MF: We’re working very hard to get to 100% preparedness. In our markets, more than 90% of the broadcasters have finalized their plans, and we know what formats they’re using and what equipment we need. We’re still working on the remaining ones. We were part of the Wilmington, N.C., transition [which switched Sept. 8]. That went smoothly -- we didn’t have any issues. 

From an engineering perspective I’m not too concerned. It’s really an issue of educating and informing customers to make sure they know what the transition means to them.

MCN: How widely has Charter deployed switched digital video? Is the goal specifically to add more HD programming? 

MF: We’re adding more programming, but we’re also recovering bandwidth to launch services like DOCSIS 3.0. We’ve announced L.A. as our first market for switched digital video and we continue to work on that. We have several markets teed up. 

At a high level, SDV is an important initiative for us to deploy additional linear channels. We have significant plans for next year and the year after that. We’ve identified markets based on needs from a bandwidth perspective and a competitive perspective.

MCN: How aggressively has Charter moved on analog reclamation? Will you move any systems to all-digital operation? 

MF: We don’t have immediate plans to do that widely, but we are looking at taking some markets to 100% digital. It depends on the market. Where we have closer to 80% digital penetration, we’re more comfortable moving channels one at a time to the digital tier. 

You can also do the more aggressive, flash-cut DTA [digital-to-analog converter] model like Comcast is talking about [which replicates an analog channel lineup using a low-cost device]. We’re evaluating that… but frankly we don’t know what the impact is on subscribers. 

MCN: How do you expect to use MPEG-4 [video compression]?

MF: I see MPEG-4 helping long term. The set-top boxes we are receiving the second half of this year have the dual MPEG-2/MPEG-4 chip sets. As we get enough of a population of those set-top boxes, we’ll take advantage of that and send more HD content to them. But it’s another tool in the toolbox for us, that down the road we can take advantage of.

MCN: Charter’s temporary waiver to the FCC’s common-reliance requirement on CableCards expired July 1 for some low-end set-top models. What were the challenges in moving to all CableCard boxes?

MF: I would say the challenges presented themselves a year ago. The majority of the boxes we deployed after the transition last year [on July 1, 2007] were high-definition and DVR boxes which required CableCards anyway. The waiver on low-end boxes expired, so we made that transition without the need to go back and ask for an extension.