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Technology: The Straw That Stirs Cable’s Drink

New Orleans — More than any single force shaping the television and broadband industry, technology is driving the biggest change.

Engineers and executives steeped in hardware and software acronyms, domestic and international, picked apart the biggest challenges faced by the industry, spanning mobile, multi-gigabit broadband, the IP video transition and a host of others, at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers Cable-Tec Expo in New Orleans last week.

Waxing Wireless

While U.S. cable operators are leaning heavily on WiFi to lead their wireless strategies, Liberty Global has also been pushing hard on quad-play offerings that tie in the MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) model.

Mobile “is becoming the primary computing device,” Balan Nair, the MSO’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, said during a presentation about technology trends and how the operator is handling new forms of competition.

Liberty Global now has about 4.5 million mobile subscribers through its MVNO relationships (that subscriber number is expected to grow to 8 million through the MSO’s M&A activity). Nair said Long Term Evolution (LTE) allows for seamless connectivity, and the technology is on the road to delivering gigabit capacities.

“LTE is here to stay,” Nair said.

But WiFi “is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our story going forward,” he said, noting that delivering a good WiFi experience in the home matters more to many consumers than the wired broadband pipe connecting the home itself.

Nair also shed some light on Liberty Global’s future plans, telling the crowd the MSO is working on its first “WiFi-first” device, which would prefer WiFi access when it’s available and seamlessly fall back to the LTE mobile network when it’s not.

Enabling that seamless transition “is not an easy thing to do,” Nair allowed, adding that Liberty Global expects to introduce the WiFi-first product toward the fourth quarter of 2016.

During the follow-up panel moderated by Cox Communications president Pat Esser, Nair outlined four ways cable operators can enter the mobile game — they can build and operate the network themselves (if they have spectrum); buy another mobile provider; launch a “lite” MVNO whereby the MSO is relegated as a reseller; or introduce a “full” MVNO play where the operator builds out the mobile “core,” keeps call control and essentially rents access to the radios and base stations.

Liberty Global has tried out all four, and Nair was direct about the issues cable operators face with the home-grown route.

“I’ll tell you, building sucks,” he said. Though Liberty Global was able to obtain spectrum relatively cheaply, the MSO shut down its home-grown network about 18 months after launching it.

He said Liberty Global has found the most success, from an operational and economic standpoint, with the full MVNO approach, which allows the operator to control the SIM card that goes in the smartphone.

“In the end, it’s about handsets and price,” he said, noting that he puts the lite MVNO on the “bottom of the list” because the operator has no control — it’s just about renting and selling.

Nair also talked up the positive effect quad-play bundles have on customer retention.

“Over time, the churn rate is discernable between a quad-play and a non quad-play,” he said. “There’s a downside, though. If you screw up with mobile, you lose all four — you lose the whole quad-play.”

Service Agility, IP Video, Cybersecurity

The technology chiefs jumped to other topics during Wednesday’s conversation, including service agility, customer-centricity, the all-IP progression and cybersecurity.

Comcast, fresh off the national rollout of its voice remote, will launch an add-on called “X1 Answers” in mid-November, MSO executive vice president and CTO Tony Werner said.

“You’ll be able to ask, ‘What was the Broncos score?’ ‘How tall is the Empire State Building?’ I think it’s going to change a lot of things,” he said.

The transition to all-IP is foundational to proactive change, Werner and others said. By this time next year, Comcast will have deployed 8 million pure- IP set-tops, which matters to serving video on second screens.

“We have the same number of baby boomers as millennials right now, and the millennials are watching a lot more content on mobile,” Werner said. “If we have 24 million customer relationships and 15 million video starts in a week [on mobile devices] — that’s exponential, and it will probably only continue to grow. If you don’t have video over IP, you’re going to miss a big part of the audience — and it’s a growing part, not a shrinking part.”

Rolling out more features and services more quickly is a big priority for all network operators, execs said.

Liberty Global, which is deploying only Reference Design Kit-based devices and will begin converting to HEVC (High-Efficiency Video Codec) for 4K/Ultra HD video next year, will get to service agility using defined and publishable APIs (Application Program Interfaces), Nair said.

“I just want to build a stack that has almost every functionality covered by APIs — it’s a big transition for us,” Nair said.

For Nomi Bergman, president of Bright House Networks, the near-term product future includes more 10-Gigabit EPON (Ethernet Passive Optical Network), with an eye toward 100-G EPON. “We’re now helping to create the standard for that,” she said.” Also hot in BHN markets: Its “Echo”-branded whole-home WiFi solution.

“It represents a really nice collaboration between the technology, product and marketing teams,” she said.

On the heels of Tuesday’s Cybersecurity Symposium, Nair described a massive hack in the Netherlands, where 2 million broadband connections were shut down, two nights in a row. The four perpetrators were arrested a couple of weeks ago, and the incident caused Liberty to overhaul its crisis handling mechanisms.

“In dealing with communications, law enforcement, regulatory, PR — as it turned out, what we had wasn’t the most easily translatable during a crisis. We had to rebuild a lot of our processes,” Nair said.

Panelists were also asked to discuss some things they’re working on today. Phil McKinney, president and CEO of CableLabs, said his thinking tends to gravitate to what’s coming tomorrow, noting that his group has been focused on “exponential technologies” — things that are outside the scope of the traditional planning cycle.

He said he worries about “what’s beyond the horizon … so that we don’t get surprised.”

Read more news from SCTE Cable-Tec Expo.