The Surprising Cable Industry

Carl Weinschenk

There is little argument that the cable industry has done a marvelous job in reaching as many consumer households and small and medium-size businesses with its services. The industry has seamlessly expanded its platforms from one capable only of providing video to one that elegantly offers a mix of video, data and telephone services.


To news items this week suggest that the industry is not slowing down in its efforts to innovate -- and to increase revenues. Indeed, both items in their way are at least a bit surprising.

Multichannel News reported earlier this week that CableLabs, the industry's research and development consortium, "is in the earliest stages of investigating a new platform" that could send 5 Gigabits per second (Gbps) of data to end users. The story points out that nothing may come of the research.


The interesting thing is that the new approach would not rely upon the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) regime of standards, which is the vehicle by which the industry has morphed from its roots to the powerhouse it is today. An even more fundamental building block of the industry -- the segregation of data streams into channels that are 6 Megahertz wide -- also would go the way of rabbit-ear antennas under the nascent approach.


That would be quite a step: Ditching the 6 MHz channelization after so many decades is akin to railroads moving to another gauge of rail. That's a psychological step, since 6 MHz has served the industry quite well. And, as the story points out, it would lead to many compatibility issues with current systems.


The other bit of news is that Canadian operator Shaw Communications will spend about $100 million during the current fiscal year developing a 4G wireless network, which will launch in late 2011.

The release has few details, but is being reported elsewhere-for instance, at CTV-that the network will first be deployed in western Canada. Another detail that is being reported by the outside sources is that the network will be based on Long Term Evolution (LTE).


That's a bit surprising simply because the major cable operators Bright House Networks, Time Warner and Comcast are partners with Sprint in Clearwire Communications. Clearwire's service, labeled Clear, uses WiMax, the other 4G candidate. LTE and WiMax have been jockeying for the past couple of years. LTE-which will be deployed by AT&T and Verizon Wireless, among others-is considered the long-term favorite. WiMax, due to Clear's early start, is more widely deployed today. Shaw's selection of LTE would be a strong indicator that WiMax, indeed, is headed for niche status.


There are more differences than similarities between these two projects. What they have in common, however, is that they show that cable operators are willing to look beyond their comfort zones-DOCSIS and 6 MHz channelization in one case, WiMax in the other-if the situation makes sense.

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