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December, 2002

 

Broadband Plus Wrap-Up - FTTH STB, Sony's Cable Splash, Playstation Set-Top and More: 

by Ken Pyle

 

Fast-forward to today, the Western Show is now called Broadband Plus. For the most part, the excitement and glamour that the programmers brought is gone. Sure there were a few programmers at this year’s show, but they were in very non-descript booths and they certainly did not throw the extravagant, after-show parties that were once standard fare. This show has quickly morphed into another technology-centric exhibition. Unlike many other technology shows, at least the panel sessions still mixes in the challenges of operations, customer service, content and marketing, as well as the technology part of the business.

Down from a peak of over 30,000 attendees just a few years ago, several people suggested attendance for this show was in the 5,000 range, although the official attendance was listed at over 9,000. Both the economy and industry consolidation are to blame for this drop. Despite the poor turn-out, there were some interesting new offerings, some of which are summarized as follows.

Packet 8, Voice over IP service:

Scientific Atlanta, Fiber to the Home Set-Top Box - More than just Fiber:

Sony's Cable Splash:

Pace Demonstrates Multi-Output Set-Top:

BroadQ's Low-Cost Software Turns a Playstation into a Set-top:

Packet 8, Voice over IP service:

This relatively new VOIP service demonstrated their service offering at the tradeshow. The quality, both in terms of lack of delay and the clarity of the audio, was impressive. A colleague and I simultaneously phoned our respective spouses in this informal test of their service offering. The quality was good, but we both noticed an approximately half-second noise burst during our five minute conversations. This was blamed on the common network within the convention center, but, in my opinion, it was more evidence of the difficulty of guaranteeing a quality of service for a service provider that doesn’t own the last mile access.

With pricing ranging from $5.95 to $39.95 per month, however, this could be a good value for a certain group of value conscious consumers and small businesses. In fact, the demonstration convinced me that the quality is good enough for the Pyle household to give this a try as an alternative to the traditional circuit-based telephone service we already have. I will provide future reports as to real-life performance.

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Scientific Atlanta, Fiber-to-the-Home Set-Top Box - More than just Fiber:

A product that had no fanfare and wasn’t even shown at this tradeshow, but that could be fairly significant for independent telephone companies, is Scientific Atlanta’s new Fiber-to-the-Home Set-top box. David Davies, Director of Strategic Marketing for Subscriber Networks for Scientific Atlanta confirmed the existence of their fiber-to-the-home set-top, although they did not actually show a one of these set-tops at this Broadband Plus venue.

What makes this set-top unique is that it makes use of digitally modulated QAM carriers for the transmission over an RF transport system, but the return is sent via an Ethernet port. With this sort of box, the need for an RF return band is eliminated, as Ethernet is used for all of the out-of-band signaling between the headend and the set-top. For fiber-to-the-home deployments, this is significant, as low-cost RF transport can be used for downstream signals, while Ethernet can be used for telephony, Internet AND the set-top commands.

Another application, that I don’t believe has been considered, is the use of this set-top in conjunction with DSLAMs and DLCs. With these set-top boxes, it is conceivable that an independent telephone company with a one-way cable plant could implement fully interactive television applications by adding an Ethernet port (via DSL) to the back of this set-top. The potential benefits to such an approach would include:

  • The cost of adding interactivity would be on a marginal basis, instead of a system basis (i.e. DSL only has to be provided to those customers who want interactive television applications).
  • Upgrading would automatically provide both interactive television as well as high-speed internet access (i.e. DSL line needed to bring Ethernet to the TV).
  • No problems with signal ingress, which is a major challenge with 5 to 42 MHz RF returns.

Of course, there would be operational and provisioning challenges, but, hey it’s just software (just kidding). Actually, I am sure that the independent telephone companies will the first to overcome those challenges. What is encouraging is that a vendor with the clout of Scientific Atlanta seems to believe there is a market for such a device. If this starts to see some success in the market place, the other set-top makers will sure to follow in developing similar products.

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Sony's Cable Splash:

One of the bigger announcements of the show was by Sony. They unveiled four set-tops that give cable television companies and their subscribers a whole range of viewing and recording options. This was Sony’s commercial introduction of products that they have been honing at Cablevision’s Long Island deployment for the last year. The significant thing about this development is that they showed interoperability with subscriber management and content protection systems from multiple suppliers.

For the first time, there may be enough marketing muscle to create an open platform in the U.S. for set-tops and conditional access for Hybrid Fiber Coaxial networks. Significantly, their platform allows their set-top boxes to operate simultaneously on the same network as legacy set-tops.

For greenfield applications, it was suggested by one Conditional Access supplier that the breakeven point for deploying a digital system using their system manager was about 5,000 subscribers. This is significant, as it has traditionally been difficult to deploy operator-owned system management systems in smaller systems - hence one of the reasons for the success of HITS with smaller operators.

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Pace Demonstrates Multi-Output Set-Top:

Another encouraging product demonstration, again from an independent telephone company perspective, was the Pace IP400. This product is able to simultaneously decode two MPEG-2 streams, which is a minimum these days for the multiple television household which is so common.

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BroadQ's Low-Cost Software Turns a Playstation into a Set-top:

Even though I found these guys sharing a part of Advent Networks’ booth, they probably had the most exciting thing I have seen in a long time. They have a $49 software package that upgrades a standard, $199 Sony Playstation 2 into a very capable set-top box.

In its initial form, this software allows a home PC to act as a file server, while the Playstation subtends (either via Ethernet or wireless means) and plays MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 files. Of course, the potential is there to directly pull files from a remote file server, say in a telcos’ central office, eliminating the need for a home PC.

This could have a significant impact on network economics for an independent telephone company that is deploying IP video, since the investment in the relatively low-cost and consumer-familiar Playstation could be off-loaded to the consumer.

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