Telco Video: Can They Do It This Time?
by Leslie Ellis // December 20 2004
Ten years ago, the subject of telco-delivered video was just as hot, if not hotter, than it is now. Monthlies made cover stories out it. Conferences sprang up to attend to the growing video plans of the then big-six phone companies. A lot was going on.
Fast forward to now. If history is the guide, then one thing is true: It took a decade for telco video not to happen the last time.
The question is whether it will take that long this time.
One could argue that telco video didn’t happen the first time around, because broadband did, instead. Remember? It went like this: Cable launched cable modems. People liked them. Suddenly, the ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) gear, specifically invented for telco video, was pressed into alternative action — for broadband Internet connectivity. Enter DSL.
If one could characterize this sequence as a parable (which is always easier to do 10 years later), the cable industry moved the “bulls eye” to its youngest son (data), sparing its elder son (video) from a competitive attack, at least from telephone companies. (It didn’t hurt that the telcos, at around that time, were distracted by a teeming desire to get into the long distance business.)
A decade passed. Cable planted the big bulls eye on the telephone industry’s elder son (voice service). It gets a dent every time a cable telephony customer signs up.
Plus, this time around, service bundles are the name of the game. The telcos, as a group, are missing a key bundle component: Video.
That explains why they’re back. But can they do it this time?
Why Telcos Missed Video the Last Time
It couldn’t be more clear, looking around, that the last big telco video attempt never really materialized. Technologists who witnessed that chapter can tick off at least two big reasons. One, loop lengths between central offices and homes were generally too long for aggressive downstream speeds. (The longer the loop, the slower the speed.)
Two, available video compression didn’t have quite enough squeeze to get the video bits through the telco pipes. MPEG-2 techniques needed 3.75 Mbps per channel; downstream speeds for early ADSL topped out at 1.5 Mbps. That pointed to an MPEG-1.5 styled offering, with video quality similar to VHS tapes. (Remember, this was the mid-90s.)
Better techniques were on the drawing board, of course, as they always are. VDSL (Very High Bit Rate Digital Subscriber Line), on the surface, offered high enough data rates to be video-friendly, and competitively interesting.
But technological threats are only scary if they can really be launched.
Asking a telephone company to commercially launch a video service over VDSL, in the mid-90s, would’ve been like asking a cable operator, in the same timeframe, to launch a high-band return path (above 1 GHz) for hauling business data: Technically risky. Lots of unknowns. Murky business model. Other priorities.
As a plastering of tasty, competitive headlines made very clear over the last month, telephone companies aren’t hobbled by the same technology stoppers this time around.
Loop lengths become less of a noose with every shovelful of dirt covering those swell new fiber optic cables going into Verizon, Bell South, and SBC territories.
Video compression improved three-fold since the mid-90s: MPEG-4 and its variants can achieve the same picture quality of that 3.75 Mbps stream, but using only 1 Mbps.
And there’s an accelerator this time around: IPTV, shorthand for Internet Protocol Television. Investment continues to pour into “IPTV” (Internet Protocol Television) from companies that are difficult to ignore, like Microsoft.
IPTV is a vast nomenclature for the sending of video over IP-based networks, such as DSL. Microsoft is a huge proponent, calling its effort “TV2,” and testing it with SBC and Bell Canada, among others.
On the receive end, consumer electronics and PC makers are investing considerable R&D into handheld and “media center” devices that can do IPTV. At the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show, IPTV will assuredly be one of the “acronyms of show.”
Why: In the IPTV world, everybody wants to be the one who figures out how to deliver video into the home, to handheld or stationary devices, over that fast IP path.
Yes, Virginia, There is Telco Video
Ultimately, then, the answer to the question of whether telephone companies can do video this time around is yes. No question. From a pure technology perspective, the nation’s telephone companies really can do it this time.
The story titled then, which will punctuate 2005, will be long on cost scrutiny, and plain old timing.
If the tale unfolds with some of the same characters as the last time, for instance, we should expect a chapter titled “Shareholder Revolt,” which exposes the skittishness among telco investors about big-ticket bandwidth costs.
The technology chapters will dissect the tech options of the telcos, to see how they can differentiate themselves, competitively. That means lots of interesting wrinkles to watch (and translate) from the technology bleachers
After all, the telcos are arriving over a decade late to a party that already has three industrial incumbents: Broadcast, cable, and satellite.
Then there’s the chapter titled “Timing.” The addition of multichannel video to a telco voice and data bundle takes time. Three years is a modest estimate.
By then, cable’s bundle, already anchored in video, will likely include mobility and wireless.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
As July 2006 Gets Closer, Security Moves Onto To-Do Lists
by Leslie Ellis // December 06 2004
Nothing like the specter of a regulatory deadline to raise a frenzy — like the escalating din around digital set-tops installed after July 1, 2006.
The issue — widely covered within these pages and in ex parte filings by multiple (sparring) parties to the Federal Communications Commission — is about conditional access and encryption.
In other words, it’s the guts of set-top security. It goes like this: If the rule isn’t relaxed or removed, cable providers have to stop deploying digital boxes with built-in security, in about 18 months.
In a sense, shifting to boxes with removable security is like learning to write with your nondominant hand: Do-able, but maddeningly difficult, clumsy at first and time consuming to master.
If you’re a lefty and you’ve ever tried writing with your right hand, or vice versa, you know what happens: You desperately want to pick up the pen with your dominant hand, because you’re quicker and more adept and make cleaner strokes.
Except in this case, there’s nothing wrong with your dominant hand. You just can’t use it anymore, because that’s the rule.
Born worriers would take one look at this situation, and do what worriers do best: Imagine the worst possible outcome so that when it happens, they’re ready.
So let’s say it happens: You need to learn to write with your other hand, so to speak. Then what?
The proposed deadline doesn’t affect the fielded base of digital boxes, so that’s good.
It does mean that the digital boxes cable operators buy themselves, to furnish as part of whatever digital video offering they proffer, must contain a removable security slot.
In contemporary lingo, they need a “CableCARD” slot — not unlike the fruits of the one-way plug-and-play agreement, and the digital TVs and HDTVs now lining retail shelves.
The easy out is to say, so what? If the mechanisms are already in place to serve protected content to CableCARD devices sold at retail, what’s so tricky about doing the same thing for the boxes operators install themselves?
For starters, getting ready for July 2006 necessarily means dropping other initiatives, in order to put out the fire, deadline-wise. There are only so many video wizards on hand, to map out a plan, organize suppliers and get systems ready for a switch-over.
It’s early enough in the worry process that “technical to do lists” are still brewing.
More, technologists are making sure they know all the questions, in order to find all the answers.
Big Two Need Tweaks
A high priority, obviously, is getting suppliers ready.
As is known far and wide, cable’s two primary suppliers of video padlocks are Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.
For those two suppliers to put the locks on the outside, instead of integrating them within their boxes, tweaks are required.
Not insignificant tweaks, some would say. Think of it this way: Since the beginning of digital boxes, security has been built in at the chip level.
Making security removable via CableCARD means re-designing those boxes, into a card, to shuttle security over different pins.
It means taking stuff apart and putting it together in a different way, so that it does the same thing.
That alone raises this question: How many models of how many digital boxes should have slots for removable security cards? All of them? Just the high-end units? Just the low-end units? Most manufacturers support five or more different models.
In any case, manufacturers generally need at least nine months notice to get going on new models. And that’s being generous.
Then there’s the issue of dual tuners. In order to support, say, digital video recorder services, there will be a need for what’s called a “multistream” card. That’s so one encrypted stream can be sent down for viewing, while another is sent to the DVR to be watched later.
Technical specifications for multistream cards are solid, MSO technologists submit, yet they don’t yet exist.
OCAP Has Impact
Then there’s the question of meeting the deadline, while moving simultaneously toward things on the overall, industrial product road map for digital boxes, like OCAP (OpenCable Applications Platform) software.
OCAP matters to this discussion, in part, because it includes support for an out-of-band signal shuttling method known as “DSG,” for “DOCSIS Set-top Gateway.” DSG will become a key passageway because most set-tops, within 18 months, will include cable modems. (Many already do.) And it turns out that DSG is a useful method for sending security stuff to boxes.
Although the FCC rules don’t specifically mention OCAP, or DSG, both are in motion. They can’t be easily ignored.
And then there’s the billing system. To overly generalize, billing systems know how to track digital boxes per home. They don’t necessarily know how to track a mated box/card duo. That means tweaks to provisioning, staging and implementation of set-tops with removable security, in a way that the billing system can interpret.
Naturally, all of these steps are interrelated, yet most are still in the interpretive stage.
If the deadline holds, MSOs will be diving headlong into the details as 2005 unfolds. They’ll be learning to write with “the other hand.”
If nothing else, they’ll be able to listen to the applause of that one hand, clapping.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.