Revving Cable’s Innovation Engine

Like the industry it serves, the only constant is change at CableLabs.

After decades as cable’s R&D and interoperability house, the organization has been shifting its focus and more of its resources into filling an innovation pipeline for the industry. Though projects like DOCSIS certification testing are still key to the organization, CableLabs is also looking around corners to keep a close eye on what’s coming next, and what its constituents will need to be bracing for.

Multichannel News technology editor Jeff Baumgartner recently caught up with CableLabs CEO Phil McKinney to get an update on the current game plan, what innovation projects he’s focused on, and his thoughts on emerging platforms such as virtual reality and 8K video.

An edited transcript follows (this feature originally appeared Monday in  the show daily distribute Monday (March 16) at the INTX show in Boston.). For more about Kyrio, the recently rebranded CableLabs-run for-profit unit, and its recent work around software-defined networking and network functions virtualization, please see this sidebar discussion with McKinney and Mitch Ashley, president and general manager of Kyrio.

Multichannel News: In January, you announced “CableLabs 2.0,” an initiative that included a restructuring and refocusing of the organization. Can you get us up to speed on the main goals and the progress you’ve made?

Phil McKinney: The CableLabs 2.0 initiative is something that's been in the works for probably over three years. When I first came to CableLabs [in 2012], the charter that the board wanted to put in place for CableLabs was for it to become the industry’s innovation lab. We spent the last three years getting the organization ready. 

In addition, we did not have a multi-gigabit strategy in place for the industry. Rather than trying to transform an organization and at the same time kick off what turned into being DOCSIS 3.1, I made the call to really keep the organization focused on DOCSIS 3.1, while we started to progress the organization toward being much more focused on longer-range innovation. 

If you look to our financial numbers through last year or even up through January of this year, roughly about 14% of our spend was focused on longer-range innovation -- things that are three-plus years out. The rest of it is in the three-year timeframe, what I'd call applied research. 

Our total technical spend is not terms of total dollars spent on our programs; it's really this rebalancing of the priorities such that 50% of our spend is in applied research, and  50% of our spend is on longer-range innovation work. 

The best example of a project with a longer the result of Full Duplex DOCSIS, symmetrical DOCSIS over HFC. 

MCN: What’s the status on Full Duplex, and the timing on when you'd expect it to become an official extension of DOCSIS 3.1? 

PM: We're still working on it and progress is looking very, very promising. Our current...plan is that Full Duplex DOCSIS will transition from an innovation project to moving it into a full R&D project. When that happens, the funding scales up significantly, the resourcing for that project scales up significantly, working groups get established, and that's when vendors get engaged.

We're anticipating that to be mid-summer timeframe...around the time of Summer Conference [CableLabs has that event scheduled for August 7-9 in Keystone, Colo.].  

MCN: Outside of CableLabs 2.0, what do you see as the big focus areas for CableLabs heading into the second half of 2016?

PM: Again, it's 50/50 from a funding and resourcing commitment. We’ve made good progress in getting that balance in place. We just had our Inform[ED] conference focused on our wireless work. Wireless work continues to be important. Wireless is not constrained to being R&D or innovation...we float [those resources] back and forth.

For us, it's about pushing the organization to look beyond the horizon and be the scouts for the industry about what's coming next. And that we are doing the ground work on developing those technologies, getting the intellectual property in place such that when those get within range of having an impact on the industry you're not starting from ground zero. 

The other key is to make sure we have that robust innovation pipeline. We had a good pipeline, but we're putting more emphasis on researching and experimenting and looking at co-innovation partners. 

MCN: What other areas that are on the radar for the innovation projects? Would virtual reality fall into that? 

PM: We have not discussed specific projects. In fact, Full Duplex is the only project we talk about specifically. But as far as broad areas that we're interested in, it falls into the categories of active networks [HFC and fiber], a lot of work going on in wireless, and security, as well as what we call next-generation experiences...specifically when you get into multi-gigabit kind of networks to homes and businesses.  VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) fall into what we consider are these next-generation kinds of experiences. 

MCN: DOCSIS 3.1 appears to be humming right along as equipment gets certified and MSOs like Comcast prepare for commercial deployments. What’s your sense these days on the use cases that will require speeds of 1-gig or more.

PM: The joke in the ISP world is when someone asks what's the app you run on a multi-gig it's only Speed Test. 

MCN: That says a lot, doesn't it? 

PM:  It’s not about sustained multi-gigabit speeds, it's about what I call "fast synch" -- you get on the network and you've got some cloud service and, boom, everything is synchronized. You want to download the move into your iPad because you're catching an airplane, boom, it's on there. 

It's not about that I'm going to draw 2-gigs on the network continuously; it's really around the periodic apps where you're looking to get data movement back and forth very, very quickly. 

If you look out a few more years, and you look at autonomous vehicles, then our conversations are with the major auto manufacturers around what the bandwidth requirements are going to be.

With autonomous vehicles, you bring them home and park them in your garage, there's a lot of data that gets synchronized between the vehicle and the auto companies for things like updating the driving information, road conditions, all those sorts of things.  They [the auto makers] are estimating that they're going to need between 200 to 300 gigabytes per month to go back and forth between the vehicle. 

MCN: How does VR factor into the potential use cases?

With VR, the experiences today are okay. We think that they're too low resolution and too low of a frame rate. They need to be at least 120 frames and at least be 4K in what we call the viewing space -- where you're actually looking. 

Today VR is 4K, but it's 4K wrapped across the entire 360-degree space. When you get it up to a resolution with a 4K viewing area and you have 120 frames…you're looking in the neighborhood of 150 to 250 Mbps to stream that. On top of that, three people in your house watching VR simultaneously streamed and you're coming up on a gigabit pretty fast. 

MCN: VR continues to get buzz as new higher end headsets come out and more content and services are developed for them. But when do you think adoption will become mainstream? 

PM: My guess is we'll probably hit holiday season 2018 when we reach the true mainstream.

We're still in this novelty, nichey kind of thing. Unity [Technologies] is doing some interesting work on engines to make it easier to create content. There are some great tools that are coming online in the next six months. There are some movies in early stage production to be fully developed as 360 dramatic, but you basically have to change the whole format of storytelling.

MCN: We've been tracking 4K developments as they progress, but how soon before your constituents need to be thinking about 8K? 

PM: For 8K, the project at CableLabs is being driven by [Japan's] J:COM, our second-largest international member behind Liberty Global. J:COM has a regulatory obligation to be broadcasting 8K by 2020, in time for the [Olympic] Games in Tokyo.  

In the reality in our testing, consumers can't tell resolution. We put a 4K set up and an HD set up, and only 61% of consumers could even figure out which TV was 4K and which TV was HD, at proper distance.

However, what we have seen is High Dynamic Range and what the many of the TV guys refer to as Ultra HD. With better color, consumers will perceive it as being a higher resolution. 

MCN: Focusing on mobile, different MSOs will have different strategies with respect to wireless and mobility, but how do you see cable’s role in this area evolving in the next few years?  Will it become a key priority?

PM: It's already a pretty big priority if you look at what the bigger guys are doing, such as Comcast and Charter and Cablevision [Systems] in terms of footprint that they've built out [with WiFi]. Let's face it, consumers want to take their broadband with them, they don't want to leave it at home. 

All of the MSOs are saying wireless is important now. They’re all going about it in different ways in terms of: "What does wireless mean?"  Shaw [Communications] buys Wind [Mobile] and is in the middle of an upgrade to 4G/LTE as part of that expansion, and you've already got Rogers [Communications]. Then we have the MNOs [mobile network operators] buying cable operators in the form of  Vodafone having bought ONO in Spain and KDG in Germany. Why? Because they need access to that network, particularly for backhaul for their small cell strategies.  

So you see this convergence where you've got the MNOs are looking to cable as a great infrastructure play and you've got cable looking at wireless, saying it's a great service offering to be able to extend the reach of their broadband services no matter where they're at.

You're seeing this convergence with the cable operators with a great fixed network that's been built up over decades and you've got the MNOs that need to go to a small cell strategy to create the bandwidth and to deliver better services, and they need access to those assets. Everybody wants to offer broadband services to their customers where they might be -- meet the customers where they're at, not force those customers to come to some location.