SCTE: Training, Standards Crucial

The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' annual conference kicked off last week in Las Vegas with advice for cable operators poised to speed up network upgrades and advanced-service rollouts.

Based on comments made at the Cable-Tec Expo's opening remarks and sessions, the industry, already faced with steep staffing challenges, continues to be prodded by vendors that are anxious to exploit cable-broadband networks to deliver their services.

In opening remarks, SCTE president John Clark said, "The SCTE's mission of training, certification and standards has never been more relevant to the industry." A trained work force is the key to the deployment of new services, he added.

Alex Best, chief technical officer and executive vice president at Cox Communications Inc., followed Clark and said the industry's challenge going forward is "obtaining enough engineers and technicians who are properly trained to maintain the infrastructure."

The evolving nature of two-way digital networks will facilitate delivery of the long-anticipated suite of advanced services, officials said.

Following Clark's and Best's opening remarks, the SCTE's "Engineering Conference Sessions" served up visions of the services that cable-broadband networks will enable and the challenges of preparing networks for those services.

Stuart Lipoff, vice president of communications for Arthur D. Little, previewed futuristic communications applications, demonstrating that consumer needs and applications will no longer be fixed to any particular portion of the home or one type of connectivity.

Successful broadband providers that can deliver "anytime, anywhere" services will be at an advantage, Lipoff said.

In his vision, future broadband customers will take mobility and wireless connectivity for granted. Shopping, business and entertainment applications and interfaces will converge. Common threads in Lipoff's applications were incorporation of voice recognition, intelligence-agent-based technology, virtual reality and biometrics.

In one taped demonstration, a boy wearing a virtual-reality visor engaged in a multiplayer 3-D video game, which he was able to pause to respond to an incoming message displayed in his viewer as a picture-in-picture video message from his mother.

In other demos, collaborative work applications produced sophisticated videoconferencing capabilities hosted by an artificial-intelligence agent, or virtual "host."

Adopting new services, such as home networking, represents a dramatic shift in the market for cable operators weaned on simply delivering video. "The cable industry has been living behind protected walls," Lipoff said, adding that with competitors vying for a slice of Internet-related services, cable "is no longer a safe haven."

Also applying pressure on the industry to bring new services to market as soon as possible was Julie Shimer, vice president and general manager for 3Com Corp.'s residential-connectivity group.

Specifically referring to the burgeoning home-networking market, Shimer said: "We'd like this market to get going today." Rather than waiting for a technologically savvy generation of consumers to embrace home networks in 10 years or so, "We can create this market today," she added.

Citing 3Com consumer research, Shimer said consumers are saying: "We really hate technology" and "technology is making things more complicated." The message is, "Give us something that will make our lives easier."

Shimer pointed to multiple-computer Internet access, printer and file sharing, multiplayer gaming, "family calendar" applications, personalization of the computer, instant messaging and "nanny cam" technologies as the top home-network and broadband applications most cited by consumers as meaningful.

Of the competing telecommunications providers that will vie for consumers, Shimer said, whichever one ties together platforms (such as wireline and wireless) and applications to offer a "single life-support system" will win the broadband battle.

Developing services that are easy to use and relevant to people's lives and tying them into various consumer-electronics devices should happen "now, instead of a decade from now," she added.

The second session of the SCTE's opening day brought together network providers and operators to discuss the implementation challenges of deploying data and telephony services.

The general message was that advanced services such as telephony and data require well-thought-out plans to implement technologies and to support them afterward.

William Bauer, president and CEO of WinDBreak Cable, discussed deploying data services in small systems. "High-speed data is a new service, not a new channel," he said. "The learning curve is very steep."

Bauer noted that a cable network doesn't have to be a full 750-megahertz system to carry Internet services. "Don't underestimate the plant you've got," he told the audience. But he said plant should have at least 25-decibel noise levels for cable modems to work, adding, "Ingress is a very hard animal to get our hands on."

Quantifying ingress is very difficult, he said, pointing out that "test equipment needs to be at the level of the field technician," rather than requiring full-blown engineering skills to operate and understand.

"Despite problems" in refining a network for data, "we are still deploying cable modems," he added.

Bauer also trumpeted satellite delivery of data and connection to the backbone of the Internet, saying satellite "is the only pipe that is dynamically assignable. That's going to be a tremendous advantage going forward."

While declaring that telephony installs were relatively easy to accomplish, Keith Hayes, director of technical operations for MediaOne Group Inc.'s Atlanta system, said attracting and retaining technicians requires creativity on the part of operators.

Since the technician communicates directly with the consumer, the person performing the installations should professionally represent the company.

Hayes also argued for assigning techs to specific headends and hubs.

In other news:

  • Jim Kuhns, Terayon Communication Systems Inc.'s senior field-applications engineer, was re-elected SCTE chairman.
  • Cisco Systems Inc.'s Mark Millet, a consulting systems engineer, received the "Member of the Year" award for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification research and instruction.
  • Cox won the "2000 Chairman's Award."
  • Dan Pike, senior vice president of science and technology for Prime Cable, and Bill Riker, chief technology officer for The Cable Center, were inducted into the SCTE Hall of Fame.