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Juicy Details on the New Switched Digital Solution for CableCARD Devices

cablelabs-logo2.jpgCableLabs put out a release earlier this week on a new device to give retail CableCARD devices access to switched digital video services. And folks have been clamoring for details ever since. (Dave, Jeff, that means you…)

Here’s what I found out.

First, the cable industry is moving quickly. As much as consumers don’t want to lose access to switched content, cable operators don’t want to lose customers as a result of the move to a switched platform. Motorola started working with CableLabs in July on a technology solution, and as of two weeks ago in an Interop with TiVo, already had a prototype device ready and performing well. That’s a four-month turnaround on a new cable device. Virtually unheard of. Motorola has also committed to general availability of the product, called a tuning resolver, by the end of Q2 2008 – essentially six months from now.

As for the device itself, there are a couple of things worth understanding from a technical perspective. The tuning resolver is likely to come directly from cable operators, much like a CableCARD. Why? Because there are huge interoperability challenges being overcome. Any tuning resolver must work with an operator’s conditional access system, switched digital technology and electronic program guide. As mentioned above, Motorola has already done interop tests, but solving these interoperability issues was no mean feat, and every cable operator is going to have to have a solution tailored for its particular network architecture.

There are a lot of people asking what the tuning resolver will look like and what it will cost. The first part’s easy. Motorola’s tuning resolver will look an awful lot like the famous (in my book) and widely deployed DCT700. As for price, that I can’t really answer. A lot of it will be dependent on volume production.

Lastly, information leaked out yesterday that TiVo is now working with CableLabs on an OpenCable product. In theory this would negate the need for a tuning resolver in TiVo’s case. However, how quickly TiVo could move forward with an OCAP product is unclear, and there are still existing TiVo and other CableCARD devices in consumer homes now that won’t be able to access switched digital services without a tuning resolver.

Last, last note – the tuning resolver does not currently support VOD services, but I’m told it’s not an unreasonable assumption to believe that it might in the future.

Motorola and Marriott Come Together

 

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With the exception of visible filth and the smell of cigarette smoke, nothing bothers me more about a hotel stay than having a flaky Internet connection. Clearly I’ll have to book at Marriott in the future.

Motorola announced a deal yesterday with Marriott to provide Motorola’s mT2a PowerBroadband system in Marriott-branded hotels. The system includes switching equipment and in-room wall plates (see above) for high-speed Internet connections and the capability to expand into VoIP, IPTV and dual-mode cell phone services.

Private broadband networks (PBNs) – not to mention the hotel market – are big business, so it’s a coup for Motorola to arrange this level of deal with Marriott. Per the press release, “PowerBroadband has recently been deployed in over 15,000 Marriott-branded guestrooms including rooms in prestigious hotels such as the Crystal Gateway Marriot in Arlington, VA… and the Orlando World Center Resort and Convention Center in Orlando, FL.”

I also talked with Motorola’s Greg Ioffe about the deal and he clued me in on certain novel considerations that apply in the hotel market I would never have thought of. Like the fact that a guest might call up the front desk to complain about a “broken” Internet connection when in reality the nearby modem has just been unplugged from the wall by the last resident of the room. Hence the patented wall plate.

Roberts on Comcast

brian-roberts-comcast.jpgStephanie Mehta at Fortune recently interviewed Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Om Malik posted a follow-up breaking the interview down into categories of questions with summaries of Roberts’ answers. Here are three items I found interesting:

  • Roberts called online video more of an opportunity than a threat because cable can deliver a fast connection for enabling that video. My take – while bandwidth concerns are a real issue, and Comcast certainly wants to make more money off of its existing cable TV services, the company has been smart enough to make online video an opportunity by hedging its bets in the online world, both by acquiring thePlatform and by staking out territory with its new Fancast site.
  • Mehta submitted a reader question asking what Roberts believes will be the future hub of the digital home. In my opinion, Roberts’ answer was spot on. There probably won’t be a single hub in the foreseeable future. For some consumers the hub may be the mobile phone. For some, it may be the home theater.
  • Roberts had one killer line in the interview about Comcast’s financial performance: “We’re pleased that for every customer we lost in cable, we gained ten telephone customers.” Touche.

RFOG and Marketing Fiber-to-the-Home

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There’s a (relatively) new acronym making the rounds: RFOG, or RF Over Glass. In brief, RFOG is a category term for technology that lets cable operators use traditional back-office cable equipment with new fiber-to-the-home deployments. In greenfield situations, even cable operators want to put fiber in the ground, but they’d rather not pay for the other network upgrades that go with it. It’s cheaper and easier to stick with coax if it means they can use existing infrastructure gear and management tools. In other words, there’s incentive to choose coaxial cable over fiber unless you solve the back-office problem. Which is where RFOG comes in.

RFOG is a good thing, but the term may also be used to muddy the marketing waters. It’s good because using an RF overlay makes it financially feasible for operators to deploy deep fiber. On the other hand, RFOG includes many of the same limitations faced on a traditional coax network. There’s virtually no bandwidth gain (unlike with passive optical networking), despite the fact that operators can market the technology as fiber to the home. Ah, marketing.

At the moment, RFOG is a standard in development. (Yes, Motorola is part of that development process.) Ideally, RFOG should act as an intermediate step on the way to passive optical networking (PON), but unless there are clear and open parameters for how RFOG must work, there is no guarantee that today’s RFOG deployment will migrate well to a future PON architecture, or that operators won’t be locked in to a single vendor’s technology.

It’s hard to be brief on a subject this convoluted, but here a couple of key points:

  1. As pressure builds for FTTH deployments (especially in new residential areas), RFOG will provide cable operators a viable fiber solution, even if it doesn’t provide the bandwidth benefits of PON.
  2. Operators should keep their eyes wide open when choosing a solution labeled RFOG. There is no agreed-upon standard yet, and anything deployed today needs to leave an operator’s options open for upgrades tomorrow.

Switched Digital Video, Black Friday and More

motorola-switched-digital-video_holiday-bow_cropped.jpgSo much going on, so little time to cover it all.

Switched Digital VideoCableLabs made it public this morning that several companies working together (including Motorola) have developed a solution to deliver switched digital video (SDV) services to retail CableCARD devices. With cable operators keen to roll out SDV in order to save bandwidth, this development is critical for consumers – who wouldn’t be able to access switched channels on retail CableCARD devices without it.

Hope to have more technical details soon, but in the meantime I want to make a point about Motorola supporting a technology that enables competitive set-tops in retail. With the long-term view in mind, opening up the cable network is good for Motorola. First, since Motorola powers cable networks, the more devices connected to those networks, the better. Second, with the goal of seamless mobility in mind, Motorola wants open networks so that more devices (including cell phones) can connect to each other.

Black Friday Bandwidth – This past weekend marked the official start of the holiday shopping season, both in stores and online. And as Broadband Reports suggested a while back, bandwidth may very well be this year’s holiday Grinch. The Raw Feed reports (via eWeek) that online traffic slowed some retail sites by as much as 400%. Obviously a lot of the issue here is at the retail end, but overall bandwidth availability is also a factor. I wonder how many people saw their Internet connections slow down this weekend during prime online shopping time.

The Killer App – There was a story up this morning out of the UK suggesting that lack of a “killer application” is stalling fiber deployments. How about lots of killer apps? Like video streaming on the Web, HDTV, video telephony, VOD