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CFP'93 - Futro

CFP'93 - CABLE: Active Participant in Telecommunications Infrastructure

by Dr. Aleksander T. Futro

Director, Technology Assessment
Cable Television Laboratories (CableLabs), Inc.
1050 Walnut Street, Suite 500
Boulder, Colorado 80302

One of the most remarkable aspects of recent technology advances is the convergence of telecommunications industries. The cable industry is maturing into a fiber-based, two-way and digitally capable world, able to deliver broadband digital-video and data services. This creates opportunities for technical partnerships in delivery systems and for exciting new services.

The cable industry recognizes the need to take advantage of technological opportunities. However it also recognizes that technology does not drive business; rather, it enables providers to meet market needs. People who think technology does drive business have lost an awful lot of money.

As telecommunications infrastructure issues move toward the front burner in Washington, the cable industry clearly has the ability and the will to play a positive role in the creation and operation of 21st Century telecommunications systems and networks. In the last 12 months alone, cable operators have shown sufficient architectural, electronic and conceptual wherewithal to be considered an important player in the development of a new telecommunications infrastructure, maybe even the leader. The cable television industry has the technology and is willing to take the risk.

During a recent hearing (Feb. 3, 1993) on the Information Infrastructure and Technology bill, Electronic Frontier Foundation President Mitchell Kapor said "In addition to the need for data superhighways, we must not forget all of the on-ramps, the country roads and the two-lane avenues. A superhighway system would be useless without the connecting roads" and the "digital last mile." Cable television operators second this opinion, and even more, they are ready to provide this "last mile" of any-and-all superhighways or national networks.

One should consider recent, as well as upcoming, announcements and news headlines by cable industry members. TCI wants to go all-digital within five years. Time Warner plans for a so-called "electronic superhighway" in Orlando, Fla., full-service interactive network to be launch in 1994, which will go far beyond just providing services such as home shopping and movies-on-demand or phone service. Cablevision Systems is starting a similar information highway on Long Island, NY. Teleport, a partnership of cable companies, already offers alternative access to long distance carriers in 25 communities in 7 major markets. Twenty-eight companies have received the go ahead from the FCC to test PCS systems. And, on the other side, Southwestern Bell is taking the first big telco plunge into the two-wire world of the cable business by announcing an intent to buy cable systems in the Washington, D.C. area.

The most important issue is the increasing or even exploding sophistication of cable technology. Time Warner's Orlando network will use a hybrid fiber/coax plant to bring together digital compression, high-speed packet switches, and video servers. This network will be capable of providing virtually any telecommunications service when linked to a "smart" consumer box. It is equally important to note that one could probably rebuild (if needed) all of the existing cable plant in the United States (currently passing 96% of TV households) in this fashion with an expenditure of somewhere around $20 billion, far less than the more than $400 billion it would cost for a comparable rebuild of the existing telephone infrastructure.

Cable television providers are positioned to offer most of these futuristic communications opportunities more quickly and more cost effectively than anyone else because they have very patiently spent the past 40 years wiring the country with coaxial cable. And additionally, fiber optic technology, satellite technology, and a variety of other technologies are going to give the basic coaxial-portion of cable transmission system a much, much longer life than expected. Coaxial cable can transport well over 1 GHz of bandwidth; enough for more than 150 standard (without compression) television channels carrying rivers of entertainment, education, and information.

Whereas fiber is very useful for transmission over long distances, and coaxial cable is very cost effective for short distances. Common sense dictates designing a communications system stringing fiber deep into each neighborhood, and then coaxial cable for the last mile. The good news? The coaxial cable already is in place.

Delivering wide bandwidth to the subscriber is a primary concern. While cable in the U.S. has achieved a fair measure of success, no situation is static. Successful businesses always attract the attention of potential competitors, and that is certainly true in the video distribution business. Many telephone companies dream of building fiber optic networks to the home which could carry video as well as voice and data services. The cable industry is a highly cost effective, high capacity video delivery system with the ability to tailor our programming to local markets, and we have the potential to provide our signals in a form directly and conveniently useful by today's customer electronics. We also have the only extant broadband communications medium in the local loop, as well as into the home.

The cable industry is on a logical migration path from yesterday's all coaxial systems with their limitations in reliability, signal quality, and channel capacity, to an entertainment delivery fiber-based system capable of delivering any program or service to any home. We can see that an extensive fiber infrastructure in the community now allows us to provide fiber drops to business users and to provide them with very high speed computer communications, either between businesses within our own service area, or through long distance fiber carriers, to businesses in other areas.

Today's cable network is migrating from the traditional tree-and-branch topology that was originally designed for point-to-multipoint video entertainment to a distributed star, tree-and-branch topology. The new architecture has a robust, dynamic capability for a wide range of applications beyond video entertainment. While the telephone companies face a mass deployment of switching and fiber optic technology in order to gain the bandwidth to enable them to deliver video entertainment, cable is in the position of capitalizing on its strategic investment and rapid prototype capability on a much quicker timeline.

Fiber is being introduced because it enables a substantial improvement in system performance and reliability, by significantly reducing the quantity of active components. This is realized in terms of greatly increased downstream passband capability (a system of 1 GHz capacity has been constructed by Time Warner in Queens, New York), which permits additional channels for services such as multi-channel pay per view, and a greatly improved carrier-to-noise ratio, which result in improved picture quality for the subscribers. The additional capacity also lends itself to the provision of other services, such as alternative transport, personal communication services (PCS), and multimedia.

All of the top 50 cable multisystem operators are actively deploying fiber. In cable networks, the fiber terminates in a neighborhood at a hub or node which serves several hundred subscribers via traditional coax cable. As noted, these structures can provide at least 1 GHz bandwidth into the home. The acronym being used is FSA--fiber to the service area. But if one compare FSA, FITL (fiber in the loop), FTTC (fiber to the curb), FTTH (fiber to the home), the most relevant is F-T-A-T-M-M. Fiber To Anywhere That Makes Money!

In any given region, it is likely that there will be more than one cable operator with one or more central headends serving a portion of a geographical area. Service is provided independent of other operators, even though the cable operators may obtain some or most of their source material from the same programming providers. Hence, duplicate satellite feeds, off-the-air equipment, and microwave facilities are required to secure this source.

The need to provide increased functionality, improve system performance and reliability, reduce operating costs, reduce the interval for introducing new services, spread capital investments across a wider base, develop interoperability with other networks, provide a more uniform service offering across the cable industry, and offer a platform for the deployment of new technologies are some of the motivations behind the development of a structured network architecture.

This architecture was conceived to take into consideration a wide variety of networks so that no operator's network is obsoleted and will allow for incremental migration rather than requiring cable operators to rebuild their networks. The regional hub and the fiber node represent the new additions to a modern cable architecture.

With the advance of technology, the need to offer a more uniform service platform is necessary in order to minimize the disparity between large and small operators. The costs associated with the introduction of new technologies and new services may preclude some smaller cable operators from offering this capability. The regional hub will provide a means for all cable operators, large and small, to provide a similar, uniform set of features and functionality.

The migration of cable systems to 1 GHz and the introduction of multi-channel pay per view also suggest the need for mass storage video sources from a centralized, shared facility. Other functionalities, such as advertisement insertion and digital video compression, may follow the same trend toward centralization. PCS and multimedia applications are likely to involve significant investments which in the early stages are better made higher in the network hierarchy at a centralized facility and shared across a larger base. As the demand for these applications and functionalities increases, it may become appropriate to migrate various functionalities, such as video storage, closer to the subscriber.

The regional hub is a centralized shared facility that serves many functions. It also provides an access point to other networks including: national information/electronic highway, local exchange carriers, inter-exchange carriers, alternate access carriers, satellites, microwave, cellular and PCS providers, and off-the-air broadcast.

The interconnection of the regional hub to the central headends may be through a ring topology. The ring consists of broadband, "self-healing," dual-alternating, analog and/or digital fiber facilities. The ring is the topology of choice due to its favorable economics and high reliability, and to ensure diverse routing. The ring topology allows for interconnecting large and small cable operators to a wide variety of advanced applications over a regional area (e.g., an entire metropolitan area). For example, the ring topology places cable in a good position for transporting both entertainment programming and interactive services.

The ring can provide coverage for wide geographic areas either independently or through coupling of rings subtended off the primary ring. The ring can support a physical area within a 200-mile radius. With coupled rings, coverage of a larger geographical area may be achievable. Many of the ring transport facilities already exist and can be leased through an alternate access provider or metropolitan area network provider. Alternatively, they can be owned by a cable operator.

Summarizing, the regional hub concept will provide the cable industry with the capability of migrating to a uniform service offering for large and small operators. The passive coaxial distribution network design will provide cable with a migration path toward a robust, reliable network capable of delivering a variety of services. This evolutionary platform provides cable with a graceful path to migrate cost effectively into the future.

From a technical standpoint, we believe that there is an evolutionary path which leads to an almost ideal entertainment delivery system and leaves open many options with regard to other information and communication services. Cable has a course of action which allows to it keep cost structure low, and yet to expand greatly the convenience and variety of the services cable networks offer the customer. Beginning with the installed base of broadband coaxial cable in the local loop, and aided by technologies like fiber optics, microcomputers, data transmission, compression, mass data storage, and digital switching, cable has tools at its disposal to construct a system which delivers almost any imaginable entertainment, education, information, or communication service.

The cable industry believes that the consumer is going to determine the future. The emphasis of our technological efforts should be to determine what the customer wants. There is no business principle more sound than that of going out with an open mind and measuring the customer's needs. That is discovering what the market is and then serving that market. It is folly in a capital intensive business like cable to try to invent a market. Discovering the market and then employing the most cost-effective technology to serve that market are the keys to success in the future as they have been in the past. The most satisfactory course to future development of infrastructure is evolutionary not revolutionary. Evolution is good public policy and sound economic and business strategy.

One of the most remarkable aspects of recent advances in fiber optic communication and in digital video compression is the evident convergence of disparate industries and communication services to the use of fiber optic technology. Fiber optic communications and fiber-in-the-loop is a clean new slate and a new set of opportunities for related industries. This technology not only benefits television, cable, communications and alternate access, computer, teleconferencing, data, and educational services, but also enables them to work cooperatively and synergistically together, as they become increasingly interdependent services.

Properly managed, this trend will serve the public interest, whether the consumer wants entertainment, information, instruction, or interaction with others, and will provide these services at the lowest possible cost, and with the greatest fiber optic facility.

Cable networks are maturing into fiber-based, two-way and digitally capable systems able to deliver broadband video and data services. Cable is therfore a valuable potential partner in future delivery systems and in important new services to the public.

Thus, it can be done, but unified and cooperative will is needed to continue and expand these efforts. One must recognize that the future informational society will not be reached by each segment of the telecommunications and video industries continuing to develop techniques and systems in competitive isolation. The technical needs of all the applications proposed are in fact rapidly converging, and in every case, signals must be transmitted by wire or fiber, terrestrial broadcast, or by satellite. Cable seek a closer alliance with the consumer electronics industry and with the computer industry because cable can introduce and transmit services which will enhance the new features which are planed for new products and will allow the development of new consumer hardware for the home and office.

Cable believes that there is considerable opportunity for inter-industry cooperative development. In truth, technology is driving all parties to cooperate through economic self-interest. Some of the services that are considered include: pay per view nearly on demand, essentially an electronic version of the video store, educational services, and new niche market program channels. Also new digital-based services now become feasible, including: HDTV, interactive services for shopping, banking, and education, and PCS. Hyper-media databases, storing a mix of text, graphics, sound, video, and animation, will soon become an integral part of the electronic library.

Telecommunications can exist, and it does exist, outside the telephone networks. One miracle of modern merchandising is the ability to put the same or better product into several different packages and sell it to different customers looking for different things. If you have been looking around carefully, you may begin to suspect that this is happening in fiber optic communications.

Gradually and cautiously some cable/telco partnerships have developed. It is desirable that the cable, computer, telephone, and consumer electronic industries all will join in this effort, recognizing that the current convergence of technology leads to a convergence of economic self-interest.

When Robert Lucky was executive director of the Communications Sciences Research Division at AT&T Bell Laboratories, he presented at the ComForum "2021 AD" in Phoenix his views of the future telecommunications infrastructure. "In 1961, no one foresaw optical communications, cheap and ubiquitous processing, or the widespread use of satellites," he pointed out. One may expand on his statement. "...At that time no one expected, and even today many do not realize, that sixty percent of households watch television over cable, that 1 GHz of bandwidth, that cable networks can support needs for broadband "last mile" of electronic superhighways and become a part of the telecommunications infrastructure, ..." Though we cannot foresee detailed technology, the broad shape of the telecommunications infrastructure is already forming. The murkiest area is applications, so the user will ultimately control the direction in which this infrastructure moves.

The basic requirements for a successful broadband fiber optic network are high-capacity transmission at reasonable cost. There is always uncertainty about what "reasonable cost" means. There are also some other subtle practical requirements that have as much to do with marketing, regulation, and organizational psychology as they do with technology. The key one is that customers must have options. Just as with cable television, everybody will not want the same package of services. Computer-phobes will not want to pay for computer data links that they will not use, but computer-philes will demand them.

The concept of "everything through one wire" is rapidly losing its credibility. Also, the notion that one would spend hundreds of billions to build a huge, inefficient and expensive "fiber to the family room" information network, when others would lie still, has no appeal. Multiple distribution networks emerging to serve evolving needs look like a much more plausible scenario for deployment of 21st Century communications technology.

In implementing the electronic superhighway or the national information network, all participants, including government, private industry, and end users, must do it in such a way that the full economic and social benefits can be achieved. Specifically, they should ensure competition, equitable access, personal privacy, and security and reliability in the operation of the networks. Multiple networks must not only exist side by side, but need to be able to connect to each other and operate in a complementary fashion if the users are to have choices among different service vendors from converging industries: computing, communications, and video delivery.

All participants in the telecommunications infrastructure must respect the diversity of the American public and allow for personal choices of access network and interface technology. Cable is willing to support reasonable interconnection and compatibility policies. And cable will surely be part of the telecommunications infrastructure.

It already is.

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