IPv6: What It Is & Why It Matters
by Leslie Ellis // September 19 2005
If there’s one acronym that’s on an unstoppable march, it is those two letters, “I” and “P,” which, when partnered as “Internet Protocol,” are the juice of a worldwide network, and a zillion offshoots. There’s IPTV, voice over IP, TCP/IP, and on and on.
IP, simply put, is the essence of the Internet, public and private.
(As this column has noted before, “IP” is also one of those acronyms that isn’t all that graceful when spoken. Try this out loud: “It seems like IP everywhere.”)
Lately, a problem is lurking in IP. It’s fairly big, data technologists say, but not insurmountable. The problem is this: A shortage is potentially in the works, if something corrective isn’t done soon.
Specifically, it’s a shortage of IP addresses. Right now, outside of a fix known as IPv6, it looks like there won’t be enough addresses to service all of the gizmos that need, or will need, an IP connection. The shortage could get ugly, and it could get ugly within two years.
Consider: By 2007, as many as 10 things in your house could require an IP address, to function properly. In some cases, one device may need two, or even three, IP addresses.
The count goes like this: There’s your cable (or DSL) modem. Maybe you have more than one. Then there’s your voice box, known industrially as an “E-MTA,” for embedded multimedia terminal adapter. It gets two IP addresses: One for the voice side, one for the data side. That’s four.
It’s entirely possible that your digital set-top contains an embedded cable modem, known industrially as “DSG,” for “DOCSIS set-top gateway.” Maybe you have two of those. That’s six.
Then there’s the stuff that’s coming, especially from the consumer electronics world. Starting in a few months, high-end televisions and HDTV/DVR combinations will start entering the retail marketplace, that are tagged as some variation of “interactive digital cable ready.”
The “interactive” part means they are two-way, which means they contain both an embedded DSG modem, and a CableCARD slot. Both get IP addresses. So if you buy one, that’s two more IP addresses somebody (your service provider) needs to score for you.
We’re up to eight. Start thinking about web cams, game players, and other in-home peripherals, and it doesn’t take too much extra imagination to run up to 10 things. Maybe more. And they all need their own IP address.
And that’s just your house. Imagine for a second that you’re Comcast. If each home within its service footprint contains 10 things that need IP addresses, that means access to something like 100 million IP addresses.
That’s about 40 million more IP addresses than Comcast can get its hands on, right now, using current technology.
Enter IPv6 — Plumbing That Matters
Happily, relief is on the way, and it’s the subject of this week’s translation: IPv6, also known as the “next generation” of IP. It goes like this: Right now, the Internet — all of it, public and private — runs on IPv4. IPv6 is the next version of it.
IPv6 contains a lot of features, but the big one for broadband service providers is its massive expansion of IP addresses. The numbers get big fast, but here’s some context: With IPv4 — what we’re all using now, even though most of us don’t know it or care — something like 4 billion total IP addresses are available for global circulation.
With IPv6, the number of available IP addresses is a one with 18 zeros behind it — which is roughly analogous to the number of known stars in our universe. In short, we should be OK for a long while, with IPv6.
The addresses themselves are longer, too: Four times longer, stretching to 128 bits, from 32 bits. In the data world, it is a huge, huge increase in address space.
As industrial efforts go, the transition to IPv6 is a component of the CableLabs effort known as DOCSIS 3.0. That’s the same one that will offer “channel bonding,” and a laundry list of other features.
MSO data technologists are already keenly focused on the IPv6 transition, saying that it will begin in backbone networks before it shifts into cable’s core infrastructure, and, especially, the cable modem termination system, or CMTS. In the early phases, the work will be conducted in the background, as a means to manage and operate existing gear.
The last step, as with most big network changes, will occur in the home — meaning that future cable modems and IP-capable devices will be outfitted to understand how to operate with the longer (128-bit) addresses that come with IPv6. It also bears noting that computer operating systems, like Microsoft Windows, will be outfitted to handle IPv6, perhaps as early as next year.
All along the way from IPv4 to IPv6, involved networks and technologies will need to support “dual stacks,” meaning, software that can interpret both versions. Right now, that puts the development onus on makers of CMTS gear. Moving from 32-bit to 128-bit addressing, as Arris technologist Rick Arnold describes it, is “a non-zero effort.”
That’s tech-speak for “it’s going to be hard.”
At the consumer level, none of this really matters. It’s plumbing, to be sure, but its plumbing that matters, because it’s needed for scale. From the sounds of the people working on it, though, the resounding sentiment is this: Start now, or be sorry later.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
Coming Soon to a Cable TV Near You: ETV
by Leslie Ellis // September 05 2005
The late summer news from CableLabs that 16 companies accomplished a solid round of interoperability testing for “enhanced TV” products seemed a useful entry into this latest chapter in the decades-long story that is interactive television (ITV).
First things first: The “e” in “eTV” stands for “enhanced.” By definition, eTV is an ITV subset. It exists to send nationally branded enhancements to a particular show or advertisement, as it is airing. The enhancements, or “triggers,” relate to the content that’s airing.
If this sounds familiar, from prior and vendor-specific attempts (Wink comes to mind), there is a difference. It is this: eTV was designed within the MSO community, to be non-proprietary, which eases national reach.
It was architected so that content creatives can pick eTV authoring tools – without having to consider what software is inside the digital set-top, to unfold and run applications. Multi-vendor interoperability, on either end of the wire, was high on eTV’s to-do list.
Aha, you say. Then it’s OCAP (OpenCable Applications Platform).
No. eTV will run on OCAP. It’s even a subset of OCAP – but eTV will run without it, too. By specification, eTV apps run on digital set-tops as “thin” as the early Explorer 2000 units, from Scientific-Atlanta, and the DCT-2000 boxes, from Motorola Broadband.
If OCAP is the whole enchilada, in terms of digital set-top software platforms, then eTV is the jalapeños.
The eTV Backstory
The backstory goes like this: U.S. cable operators were highly motivated to develop a “backatchya” to a digital TV feature well known in England, and likely headed this way from DirecTV. The feature, known in the U.K. as “the red button,” lets customers click to interact with a particular show, as it airs.
In tech terms, eTV and the “red button” are “program synchronous,” or, associated with the program playing. Some also call them “bound” apps – as opposed to “unbound” apps, which aren’t correlated to a particular show. The electronic program guide is one example.
The work to make the eTV idea into a technical specification began in early 2004. By July of this year, two key specs emerged. One is the (wonderfully nerdy) “EBIF,” which stands for “Enhanced Binary Interchange Format.” (People say it in two syllables: Eee-biff.)
EBIF defines how the bits go on the wire. Authoring tools spit their bits out in EBIF. Set-tops interpret EBIF bits. Content providers can pick whatever EBIF-splitting tools they want. Ditto for MSOs and the eTV set-top software they buy. End-to-end becomes end-and-end.
ABC Tests eTV on ‘Lost’
Rewind to late July, and the CTAM Summit, in Philadelphia. There, Walt Disney Internet Group VP Rick Mandler packed a small breakout room to discuss ABC’s eTV plans, which are decidedly mainstream: Six episodes of the network’s popular show “Lost.”
Part of the intent, Mandler said, is to reward people for paying attention. “Lost” builds from one episode to the next. It’s easy to get well, lost, if you miss one. Binding triggered information into the show lets new viewers catch up, and existing viewers flaunt their recall.
Easy on the skepticism. True, the ITV timeline is very long, and beset with mis-steps. If that’s your view, consider: ABC’s research shows that people who use eTV in a two-screen form (watch TV, doubly engage on laptop) are 42% more attentive to the show – and 95% more attuned to advertisements.
ABC’s work figured heavily into the August interop at CableLabs, as did applications from Showtime, The Weather Channel and GSN.
The Business of eTV
There are at least four different technology segments serving eTV. One is the actual applications originators, like ABC. Without them, nothing “cool” happens.
Some creatives use tools that can “output” code compatible with eTV. Others use eTV tools made by a second supplier group, populated by companies like Emuse, Ensequence and GoldPocket Interactive.
Another link in the chain: Makers of “stream generators,” which tuck triggers into shows. Participants include Softel and S&T.
Digital boxes need “user agents,” which are the tight chunks of code that unfold and run eTV applications. EnSequence, GoldPocket, Navic Networks and TVWorks (and specifically its MetaTV subsidiary) are players.
It’s important to note that right now, eTV is still at the stage of a good interop test. Field trials are in early planning. In CableLabs lingo, eTV is generally recognized as a “fast track” item, meaning its members want it out there as soon as feasibly possible.
Also unclear are the boundaries around who buys, operates and maintains what gear, in order to make eTV triggers play. Do all triggers come from content originators, and get passed through network affiliates and cable distribution? Who pays whom?
The blessing and the curse of technical specifications is that they thrive on additions. In the case of eTV, the next version is potentially more exciting than the first (existing) version, because it aims cable at a “feature sweet spot” that cannot be replicated by satellite TV providers.
Think of your favorite TV show. It ends. Up comes a trigger: Want to see another episode? Sure. Guess where it is? On an on-demand server, up in the network. For the satellite guys to replicate this, they’d have to anticipate favorite shows, and download them into the DVR box ahead of time. Seems tricky.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.