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Todd Spangler’s Journal: Day Two

The word of the day at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers’ Cable-Tec Expo 2007 is, well, actually two words: “high-definition.”

Kicking things off, National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow touted the industry’s HD primacy in the conference’s opening keynote.

“We offer HD service to 100 million American households and carry the HD signals of local broadcasters in 206 of the 210 U.S. television markets,” he said. By comparison, he added, DirecTV offers local HD channels in 60 areas and EchoStar Communications’ Dish Network in just 30. Verizon Communications’ FiOS network, meanwhile, is set to reach 13% of U.S. households by 2010.

Not mentioned in his prepared remarks: The Federal Communications Commission’s July 1 ban on integrated set-top boxes, which is set to go into effect for most operators unless the agency pulls a deus ex machina sometime this week.

McSlarrow saved some cutting remarks for a follow-up Q&A session. When asked about the consumer-electronics industry’s push to get cable to eat its own dog food and use CableCARDs, McSlarrow commented, “It seems to me that everyone associated with the consumer-electronics industry should be asked, ‘You have a proud history of being against regulation -- why won’t you be principled and consistent in this case … and oppose regulations that hurt consumers?’”

He added: “The consumer-electronics guys would love to make us into a dumb pipe and disaggregate our services, which is obviously not something we want to see happen.”

• Cox’s Esser: Bring On the HD!: Also swinging at the HD fastball was Cox Communications president Pat Esser. To counter DirecTV’s “future” of 150 HD channels, Esser told his tech team to create shelf space for at least 50 HD channels by the end of 2007, and then double that in 2008. Esser then quipped that Cox’s engineers are “probably going back to their hotel rooms right now to figure out how they’re going to do that.” Yes, he was kidding.

• The 8-Megabit Question: HBO chief technology officer Bob Zitter, on a breakfast panel moderated by Multichannel News columnist Leslie Ellis, talked about the pay network’s transition to delivering all 26 of its feeds in HD. HBO will compress its signals in MPEG-4 format at about 8 megabits per second -- which Zitter noted is one-half the bandwidth needed with MPEG-2.

But how did Zitter arrive at 8? MPEG-4 encoders can deliver HD signals in as little as 4 or 5 mbps. “It’s subjective,” Zitter admitted. That encoding rate, he explained, was picked partly to consider the fact that nearly all of its cable distributors will need to transcode the feeds into MPEG-2. It’s also supposed to provide some future-proofing: “With 8 megabits, we want to make sure there’s enough headroom so that there’s ability to deliver better quality tomorrow than we are today,” Zitter said.

• Pivoting Very S-l-o-w-l-y: In typical cable fashion, the four operators that joint-ventured-up with Sprint Nextel are taking their sweet time in pushing the Pivot-branded mobile phone service. It’s been 20 months since the Sprint-cable JV was announced, and what are the results? “Several-thousand” customers for Comcast and Time Warner Cable, respectively.

• You Got IPTV? Big Fat Deal: Time Warner Cable CTO Mike LaJoie, on the CTO panel this morning, said he didn’t get Internet-protocol TV. Right, he understands how it works. It’s the notion of marketing IP transport as if it were a sexy differentiator that befuddles him. “IPTV -- it’s like talking about ‘fiber,’” he said. “As a consumer, I don’t care how it got to me.” (Note to LaJoie: Verizon is betting billions of dollars that “fiber-optic” sounds sexier than “hybrid fiber-coax.”)

Continued LaJoie: “This notion that the Internet is going to replace multichannel video … I don’t believe it.” Years ago, he pointed out, there was a debate about whether the PC would displace the TV or vice versa. “It didn’t happen. It’s not going to happen. Devices are going to continue to diverge. People are going to consume content wherever they want to.”