The Western cable show ended a 36 year tradition with only 6150 in attendance, but with many visions of past shows now translated into market realities. With the glitter of great give-aways and lavish parties only a memory, and the outrageous one liners from Ted Turner ancient history, the opening panel discussions were rooted in serious business topics, like the cost of sports programming and the inevitability of PVRs for skipping ads.
For those who have been around the cable industry for a while, there was also a sense of accomplishment. Starting from the concept of cable modems and high speed data services a few years ago, Brian Roberts pointed out that high speed Internet now accounts for 15% of Comcast's revenues. VOD and HDTV which were always coming "next year" are in the here and now and will soon be available almost everywhere; and with about 3 million cable telephony customers already, 2004 and 2005 will see the start of the big cable telephony ramp up. PVRs are now embraced by cable and Comcast expects they will be available to 80-90% of Comcast's customers in 2004 -- providing one box and one remote control for digital cable, VOD and PVR.
Although there was clearly a sense that much has been accomplished, there was no feelng of complacency from the panel. Competitive threats are very real and Roberts stated cable's focus on staying ahead: "Cable will use IP to deliver all the future dreams of the industry." Another panelist stated that cable’s superior network platform is the industry’s key weapon in battling competition.
When asked by Larry King what the killer app for the future would be, the panelists agreed that it was the use of their large amount of spectrum to provide whatever the customer wanted. Brian Roberts mentioned that he and some of the other CEOs had been in Silicon Valley the day before, looking at innovative ways to use the spectrum. He reiterated his previous statements that if cable had a service that required 50 Mbps "we could provide it".
It wasn't all serious however. Bill Schleyer, Adelphia's CEO, got a hearty laugh from the audience when he answered a question about escalating sports content costs by saying "we've uniquely solved the sports problem by declaring bankruptcy". The sports discussion was far from lighthearted in general however. Glenn Britt of Time Warner explained the dilemma that arises when some network operators feel like they've got to have certain sports to compete. That raises the price of the rights, with the money going to the players. Then the rights holders assume they can get the money through the cable operator, funded by the consumer. But consumers are saying no to higher prices. There are no simple solutions.
One of the messages from many of the opening speakers was cable indsutry support of both openness and standards. Spencer Kaitz, President of CCTA, pointed to CableNet, with its inclusion of many diverse and entrpreneurial companies as a statement by the industry about openness. In another accomplishment promoting openness, CableNet included a working system demonstrating OCAP, the industry initiative that will allow retail sale of settops that can be supported by any operator. These are expected to be in the market in late 2004 and 2005. There seemed to be increased recognition that the retail partnerships that satellite has leveraged for so long would increasingly be sought after and cultivated by the cable industry. Starting in the spring of 2004, CableNet will move to the National Cable Show.
While there was a sense in the crowd that the Western show would be missed, many participants will be relieved not to have that huge commitment of effort and time coming right after Thanksgiving and before the December holidays.
( www.thewesternshow.com ) ( www.cablenet.org)
CableNET has been a major feature of the Western Show since 1993. It showcases equipment, services and applications by companies from various industries, which may play a part in what MSOs deliver to their customers in the future. Recently, as the programmers stopping exhibiting and the glitz faded, technology and the CableNET exhibit have taken on a more central role in the shows. This year it certainly seemed to be the place where many of the attendees were congregating. Its new venue will be the NCTA's National Show: Cable '04 wlll take place in New Orleans in early May.
Here are just a few of the exhibits that caught our eye as we visited this year's collection of demonstrations:
At the Western show, we talked with Ji Zhang, CTO of Exavio. He showed us their new ExaVault Media Storage System -- a huge low-cost video server.
ExaVault is based on the latest low-cost IDE/ATA PC hard drives which today store 250 GB each; Exavio packages three drives in each "hot-swap disk tray module". Four removable modules fit in each chassis, which stores 3 TB, occupies a single 1U (1.75") slot in a standard 19" rack and includes one or two power supplies and can be configured for up to 8 IEEE 1394 ports.
The "head server/controller" also fits in a 1U slot, and provides all RAID functions in software running under Linux. A single standard 7' high 19" rack has 42 slots and can provide 120 TB of raw storage, with Gigabit Ethernet or Fiber Channel interfaces.
A typical DVD stores about 4 GB. Without RAID reduncancy, each ExaVault chassis can store about 750 DVDs; each full rack can store the equivalent of 30,000 DVDs. In a world moving toward "everything on demand" video, systems like the ExaVault will play a big role.
( www.exavio.com )
We visited Entropic at their suite, and saw their demo on the show floor. (See "Whole Home" Networking over Coax -- An Interview with Entropic (http://www.broadbandhomecentral.com/report/backissues/Report0311_7.html) in last month's issue.)
In their suite, Entropic showed us a complete coax-based network with multiple video streams playing simultaneously. On the show floor, they showed HDTV over coax.