Enabling New Content with High Speed Internet Access

by Jody Baram

You've probably already read about it. DSL, Cable modems. Set top boxes. Broadband. Big Pipes. Slowly but surely, enhanced television is coming to your neighborhood. It's been a long time coming.

Over the years cable companies have succeeded in providing niche- oriented programming that has become entrenched in our popular culture. For instance, viewers know that if they want the latest news they turn on CNN. With the Internet, however, subscribers can get the immediacy of TV with the in-depth analysis of a daily newspaper. Indeed, TV watching, in general, has declined with the rise of the Internet.

The telecos have finally responded with a competitive offering of DSL, digital subscriber line. In a little over 24 months, DSL has indeed surpassed the cable companies in terms of subscribers. Deployment has been limited because of a lack of physical space in Central Offices and personnel needed for installations.

An overwhelming success, broadband technology has been a proven must have for those who depend on the Internet. "From a marketing perspective, people are accustomed to paying for cable. They add their Internet costs to their cable costs, and it seems it's easier for them to justify. It turns out that the high-speed Internet access you can get with a cable modem is very compelling,"says Paul Ashcraft, senior partner for the Envision Group in Torrance, CA, a market research firm.

Cable Modem Installed Base

Cable modems have quickly become a must have for Internet saavy SOHO's and early adopters. Yet killer apps are few and far between, and it remains to be seen if churn presents itself in this marketplace.

One of the first services available with cable modems was @Home which includes AT&T as a major influencer by virtue of its acquisition of TCI. Providing cable modems users with daily cover features, lifestyle, finance, pop arts, shopping and chat; they have been quite successful to date in connection with other cable companies and have been tapped as a software developer for TCI’s cable systems. Other cable modem concerns like Worldgate, ICTV, and On-set are also offering channels on various cable systems and pricing. ACTV, available on TCI systems, provides individualized TV sports viewing. And the list continues to grow.

With competition mounting and digital technology maturing, the race is on among cable operators to implement two-way digital systems. While some operators are currently using a telephone return path many are upgrading to a completely digital solution. Two factors give cable operators excellent advantages: Television has quickly become the focal point for the convergence of digital entertainment, and cable companies’ network architectures have become reliable and flexible enough to accommodate new services.

What is a cable modem?

The term cable "modem" is a relatively new term which refers to a box that acts as a bridge or router connected to a computer and operates over ordinary coaxial cable TV lines. Most cable modems are based on the standard --MCNS (Multimedia Cable Network Systems) in the US and DVB/DAVIC in Europe-- so different vendors are able to work together. The OpenCable project delivered a set of specifications for transmission schemes, digital video transport, and an implementation for data encryption. This standard is important both for quality and security. Competing technologies like the telcos digital subscriber lines currently lack standards and face some technological hurdles. According to Kiram Narsan high speed data analyst for Giga Information Group. "...a high speed DSL could interfere and create crosstalk that would cause the other services on the wires physically next to it in a binder to go temporarily haywire."

Architecture

Cable TV operates on a hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) broadband network. HFC is acknowledged as the optimal network architecture with the bandwidth and flexibility to seamlessly support a full range of analog and digital services, as well as both data and video, on one platform. Cable modems attach to the network using a common computer network protocol called Ethernet. The "modem" attaches to the TV outlet for your cable TV, and the cable TV operator connects a Cable Modem Termination System (CTMS) in his end (the Head End). Unlike a regular phone modem which is a private point to point connection, the cable "modem" network is a shared local area Ethernet network like those used in businesses. If two modems on the system want to talk to each other, they must go through the CTMS. In the past, the cable network architecture looked like a tree with roots and branches, the consequence of which was that if one part of the network went down, the whole network stopped working. New architectures like the Cox Ring in Ring implementation offer 100% reliability and a new kind of flexibility for future services like Internet Protocol (IP) telephony.

Benefits and Concerns

The benefits of cable modem access are dramatic. Speeds ranging from 25 to 1000 times today's current dialup modems are possible. With the use of proxy servers which store frequently accessed information and websites locally, you get the information you need even faster. The cost is dramatically less than that of a T1 line with the potential for the same speeds. The connection is always on, so you don't have to dial anything. Last, but not least, you don't have to tie up a telephone line in order to have access.

There are two drawbacks of the current networks, which are characteristic of any Ethernet network: privacy and performance degradation. The first is of concern if you are doing transactions over the net. Using a first generation cable modem is like using a party line. If one of your neighbors on the same node wants to listen in, they can. Unless you have file sharing off; are on a secure server; and using encryption or have one of the MCNS modems, technically savvy co-users of the network have the ability to intercept the data stream with devices called sniffers. The second concern is quality of service and inconsistent performance levels. All ISPs, if they are successful, experience growing pains. AOL, for instance, was sued because some irate users had trouble connecting to their network. Cable companies like Cox, Time Warner, and Media One have made outstanding progress in both customer service and network upgrades. Time will tell if they keep pace with a large influx of customers.

What it is like to have one installed.

As a former cable subscriber and fairly adept Internet surfer with two ISP's, I was very excited when I saw the ads for MediaOne's Express High Speed Data Service. While I had to wait three weeks for MediaOne to install "the node"in my neighborhood-- equivalent to an ISP's POP-- , it was well worth the wait. The service saves me hours of wasted time and frustration waiting for information on the Web.

I was pleasantly surprised when the service people called the day before to confirm and again on my scheduled installation day to ask if they could come early. They also threw a bunch of networking jargon at me hoping to intimidate me--it didn't. Because I was one of the first ones on my block to get the service, I got special treatment. When the installers arrived, there were four of them (there are usually two). MediaOne did not have any of their regular cable installers do the job, but rather used contractors who evidently had installed Time Warner's Road Runner service prior to this. Before they commenced work, they required me to sign a 13 page Service agreement stating among other things that the service was for a single computer and IP connection and that I agree not to resell or redistribute access or run a Web server off the system.

The work was divided so that two of the men installed the cable and the other two installed the software on my computer. In the building complex where I live, we have an ancient satellite dish system as well as CATV access. Because all the coax cable boxes look alike, they had trouble finding the right box (if MediaOne had sent a regular cable installer who was familiar with the building, this could have been avoided.) They took four hours to do the actual installation and did a pretty good job.

Although I asked them not to touch my satellite connection, they disconnected it from the wall anyway. They also broke off a plastic covering for the old cable enclosure outside, exposing the new one to the elements. In addition, they placed a "High Speed Data Do Not Filter" label on the cable. My computers and TV sets are not in the same room. I had the installers diagonally wire the length my home with the cable so I could move the modem from room to room (like a roll-about VideoConferencing system). From the cable modem box there is another connection that looks like a thick telephone wire with a wide phone jack on both ends. This 10BaseT (twisted pair) wire is called category 5 cabling and is very common in LAN's. The modem box itself needs to be connected both to the coax cable and to the electricity all the time. It has two green lights that let you know if you are connected. Your computer needs to have an Ethernet card or they will install one for you. While they say only certain cards will work, if you know how to do it, you can save a few dollars by installing the card yourself. The server software at the cable company's head end uses the media access control (MAC) address of your Ethernet card to authenticate you as a user.

Advantages:

Broadband pipes mean that not only can you download large files in a fraction of the time, but you can experience new kinds of choice in your entertainment. One of the coolest uses of the broadband pipes is the Intertainer service. Offered initially in Philadelphia and Arizona, Intertainer is the first aggregator to use a broadband delivery system for on-demand entertainment and shopping. With new alliances announced on a regular basis, co- founders Jonathan Taplin and Richard Baskin say they think they’ve found the right mix of entertainment, community, and customization with just the right amount of commerce thrown in. "When the early cable networks like A & E first started, they didn’t make any money; but they are now. It’s great to be at the start of this thing." With show business backgrounds, these entrepreneurs have done their homework on the technology and have the right connections to seal deals with the kind of entertainment companies that you or I would want to see.

Who are the companies involved?

Two dominant groups in the set top box arena are the Scientific Atlanta, Media One, Cox, TimeWarner, and Comcast camp and the General Instrument, TCI, Microsoft, Sun group. While the GI group has been quite vocal, it is the other camp that is actually delivering.

To capitalize on their advantages, most of the largest cable operators are deploying their first two-way digital systems in 1998. The first two-way digital set-top currently shipping to cable operators for 1998 deployment is the Scientific Atlanta Explorer 2000 advanced digital set-top.

This new consumer appliance has capabilities similar to a local area network, yet remains as easy to use as a TV. While it can start out primarily as a digital video entertainment device, the Explorer set-top is also designed to act as a TV Web browser or high speed cable modem for seamless support of both video applications and Internet access via the TV or PC -- at cable modem speeds.

Implications

Wider pipes and computer smarts mean different content. With new versions of software like Real Player Plus, Microsoft's NetShow, and Apple's Quicktime streaming video in your computer can actually rival television. Brian Hurst, President of Tandem Intermedia, a new media strategic planning firm, says there are only a few applications that viewers want to be interactive: sports, news, edutainment, commerce, and games.

Be prepared for a new kind of video game. What about High Definition video backgrounds where you become immersed in a Holadeck-type of experience. You pick a story line, the characters, and the amount of time you want to play. Macromedia’s tools or something similar provide the interaction, and your actions influence your experience of the story.

With the convergence of high speed data and communications, larger hard drives, holographic memory chips, and blazing CPU’s, [along with HDTV] lots of interesting things will be happening according to Robert Berzins Grand Webmaster for Interplay, a game developer.

 

Predictions

Ideally the cable companies would like cable modems to be as easy to install as phone modems. Consumers could buy them at CompUSA and install them themselves. This could bring prices down. "It's somewhat ironic that in the beginning, the Internet and the digital cable set-top box were seen as competitors. Now, we see the Internet and high-speed cable modems driving the consumer demand for the set-top box." says Paul Ashcraft, senior partner for the Envision Group in Torrance, CA, a market research firm. Says Ashcraft, "I think the digital set-top box will be a success. The Internet will push it over the top." Indeed, pioneer Dr. Bernard Luskin, former president of Phillips Interactive Media and Jones Interactive says "The future is screen deep". It won’t matter whether you're watching a TV screen or a computer screen. Luskin believes that if the 80’s was the decade of the spreadsheet, the 90’s was the decade of the telecommunications gadgets, [like set top boxes] then the turn of the century 00’s will be the decade of the programmers [content developers]. He sees more choice for the viewer to make "programming" decisions like what to watch not just when to watch it.

Get It

If you are lucky enough to live in an area with a CATV service which is offering data services and if you use the Internet over 5 hours a month, do yourself a big favor by signing up for the broadband service. With the convenience, enhanced value-added services, and new levels of enjoyable entertainment, we will wonder how we ever got along without it.

You can email Jody Baram at jb@jab.com
Copyright 2003 Jody A Baram