Skip to main content

Translation Please: 3G, 4G, Whatever It Takes

Complete Cable Show 2009 coverage from Multichannel News

Three topics rose to the top of the “huh?” heap following the opening general session last Wednesday afternoon: Wireless, online video, and “entitlement.”

Let’s start with wireless. Craig McCaw, chairman of the MSO-heavy wireless broadband startup Clearwire, peppered his remarks with the terms “3G” and “4G.”

Short version: The “G” is for “generation.” Clearwire is 4G, which is a fourth generation of packet data networks, like Wi-Fi. Incumbent cellular providers (as well as Cox Communications) are 3G, which is a third generation of mobile voice networks.

4G is WiMAX, a cousin of Wi-Fi. It’s all about packet-styled, IP (Internet protocol) traffic. 3G began with voice, and adds mobile broadband. By most accounts, 3G has more momentum, simply because of the largesse of the incumbent mobile carriers (AT&T, Verizon Wireless, etc.)

Online Video

On the online-video front, the question mix dealt mostly with bandwidth. How much bandwidth would it take, asked one attendee, to send existing cable channel lineups for viewing online?

A clarification here: “Online video” can mean one of two things: Going to your PC, a la Comcast Fancast or, to watch episodic TV on demand, or, pushing Internet-video to the TV, via the set-top box or home network.

Either way, it takes bandwidth. Recall that most operators already carry “the big channels” three different ways: Analog, standard definition digital, and HD digital. Sending them for online viewing is yet a fourth way.

Making a full digital-cable channel lineup available online, from a cable modem, involves figuring out which of those channels to “multicast” (the Internet version of broadcast), and which to switch. Logically, the lightly viewed fare usually gets switched.

The vendor community (and MSOs) are split on how best to do online video. Some (BigBand, for instance) think it’s better to use the existing switching fabric (as in for on-demand) to receive a request for video, then switch it out in IP.

Others (anyone involved in cable modems and “traditional” broadband technologies) think it’s better to send IP video over the IP plant.

Behind it all is the growing matter of “entitlement.” It goes like this: You’re traveling. You have a good broadband connection to your laptop. At home, you subscribe to Showtime. You want to watch an episode of United States of Tara.

To do that, your cable provider needs to make sure you’re a legitimate Showtime subscriber. That’s one part of it. The other is the growing need for cable operators to work toward serving individuals in a home.

Right now, you are your address. For online video and its accoutrements, you need to be you. More on that next time.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis