Cisco Gives SPs More Reasons To Accelerate IP to the Home

Ken Morse, CTO, Service Provider Video Technology Group, Cisco Systems

Ken Morse, CTO, Service Provider Video Technology Group, Cisco Systems

January 29, 2010 – Cisco Systems is moving on several fronts to accommodate new opportunities for service providers in an increasingly IP-centric environment, including the rollout of a telepresence system for the home and new approaches to supporting an integrated services architecture in cable.

The home telepresence platform, to be tested starting this spring by Verizon and later by France Telecom, can be connected to a subscriber’s HDTV set through a standalone device that comes with a camera and microphone that attach to the television or Cisco can supply an integrated unit with HD screen that doubles as the user’s television set. While officials declined to divulge price points, Cisco CEO John Chambers in a presentation at the Cisco Live conference in late January suggested the full system price with HD set would be below $10,000.

In an interview, Ken Morse, CTO for Cisco’s Service Provider Video Technology Group, stressed the scenario where the system would use the consumer’s existing HD set and suggested that, eventually, the technology could be incorporated into a new generation of set-top boxes. “The natural migration will be to bring a lot of that capability into the set-top,” he said.

But, for now, the telepresence device will operate alongside the set-top. “The customer can walk home with the unit and plug it into their broadband connection and go from there,” Morse said. “No technical assistance is required from installers.”

While the system is designed to work over links operating at speeds as low as 1.5 megabits per second, the full 1080p resolution capability of the platform will require 4-5 mbps connections, Morse said. “The system is dynamically scalable to adjust to the connection speed,” he noted.

And it’s designed to allow users to connect with other parties unequipped for telepresence who are using Web video conferencing through Skype, Logitech and similar outlets. “This is something that distinguishes the home telepresence system from the enterprise product,” Morse said.

Cisco and other telepresence systems now in growing use by corporations worldwide (see July 2008 issue, p. 1) convey lifelike images of participants at sufficient resolution to create the illusion of intimate proximity, thereby increasing the communications value of traditional video conferencing. In the home environment, achieving this level of verisimilitude requires special processing that enhances images compressed by MPEG-4 H.264 encoders.

“With H.264 you have a toolbox of options, so some of the secret sauce in our encoding process is how we optimize the use of those options,” Morse said.

“The other tough piece is the audio and lighting quality in the home environment,” he added. “In the enterprise you have a special room where the system is set up. In the home there’s no control over where the customer places the system.” Consequently the system has to be able to adjust automatically to whatever the lighting and acoustic conditions are to ensure quality is maintained in sessions with other telepresence users.

Verizon and other service providers who test the system will be trying to determine likely take rates and what the right price points should be. But Cisco has already ascertained that there is a significant market for telepresence, especially among people who work at home, including corporate executives who may want to conduct meetings outside of regular business hours with colleagues in other time zones.

“There’s a lot of interest in this among service providers, be they cable MSOs or telephone companies,” said Dave Clark, director for product strategy and management in Cisco’s video technology unit.

Telepresence is another of the IP-based services that continue to tip the scale toward an integrated services model anchored in broadband infrastructure. As the cable industry moves toward embrace of a standardized model for a next-generation IP architecture (see January issue, p. 1), Cisco is looking at how to apply its work in CDN (content delivery network), home gateway, DOCSIS 3.0 and distributed intelligence technologies to cable’s advantage.

“I think the question with service providers in general is how to leverage IP to get away from legacy service silos as they introduce new services,” Clark said. “And then it’s a matter of what the timing should be.”

A key component of the new cable IP architecture will be CDNs designed specifically for premium service requirements. “All the major service providers are starting to move from third-party CDNs to understanding they need their own CDNs to ensure they meet the quality-of-service requirements they’ve set for subscription services,” Morse noted. A cable-optimized CDN provides operators a distributed architecture that maintains bandwidth efficiency and maximizes QoS, and it allows them to move to convergence of multi-screen services with a single point of control over transcoding, formatting and the management of DRM (digital rights management) systems.

“As operators look at their existing QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) infrastructure, they have to figure out how to hit all those devices beyond the TV with the huge amount of video they have on the back end,” Morse said. “They don’t have the QAM bandwidth to do that, so it makes sense to put everything onto a unified CDN.”

The question then becomes how to efficiently distribute both the QAM-based legacy content and the IP content. As Clark noted, some operators, including most notably Comcast, are freeing up a lot of digital bandwidth by eliminating all but a handful of analog channels and using DTAs (digital terminal adapters) to convert digital signals for all-analog households. Others like Time Warner Cable are focusing on SDV (switched digital video) as the first line of attack in the effort to open more capacity for digital.

“How fast and far they go in the direction of delivering video over IP depends on a lot of factors, including local demographics and how bandwidth challenged they might be,” Clark said. “Some people are looking at a faster track using MPEG-4 with IP in conjunction with bandwidth freed up by DTAs.”

No matter how aggressive the transition to IP might be, there will be an ongoing need to deliver MPEG-2 QAM-based content to legacy set-tops while also achieving maximum efficiency in serving IP devices, which is where an intelligent gateway device comes into play. In some cases operators will simply pass the QAM signals through the gateway to existing set-tops and digital cable-ready TV sets; in others they’ll put QAM tuners in the gateway and eliminate the need for individual set-tops.

But either way, in Cisco’s opinion, the gateway should be seen as a major point of intelligence resources for managing IP services. “The gateway enables all the devices in the home to connect to the cable plant, and it’s also an extension of the network,” Morse said. “It’s the ultimate edge cache – an always-on device that can support remote access to personal content and understand the technical parameters for serving other devices.”

Whether operators choose to operate from a cloud-based architecture where much of the applications intelligence might reside or to rely more on premises-based intelligence to manage applications, the gateway will adapt to individual MSO requirements. “It can interact with the cloud or pull [instructions for applications and service management] out of the network,” Morse said.

The gateway envisioned by Cisco accomplishes many other things as well. Through the widely used DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) interfaces that have been incorporated into cable’s home networking standard, the gateway provides the operator a way to support subscribers’ use of off-the-shelf storage and other devices to maximum effect. “That’s what’s starting to drive support for [gateway-based] IP distribution in the home,” Morse noted.

The gateway also becomes a core component for assuring QoS through communications with the network as to the precise latency, bandwidth and format parameters that are required to serve any given device. And it reduces operational complexities by giving service providers a single point of presence for downloading updates to software.

Moreover, Cisco sees the gateway as a way to conserve bandwidth by allowing operators to use IP multicast for distribution of linear broadcast content rather than requiring that everything be done in unicast mode. “We can do multicast to the gateway and then turn it into unicast for delivery to devices in the home,” Morse noted.

In essence the gateway becomes the operator’s way of shifting to new consumption profiles where the cable service remains an important resource for subscribers, no matter what types of devices they use or where they go for some of their content and applications.”The service provider gets a lot of value out of owning the end-user experience, which can be extended into other browser-based, Flash-based devices,” Clark said. “They want the consumer to think of them as the go-to source to eliminate barriers to getting whatever they want.”

This gets operators out of the business of writing software for devices, allowing them to rewruite the user experience on the network as requirements evolve while focusing on developing applications and services that help retain customers. “Writing software for the set-top has been the traditional way operators have maintained control over the consumer experience,” Clark noted. “Now we have customers telling us they never want to have to write software for set-tops again.”

Where DOCSIS 3.0 is concerned, while the industry will continue to streamline the CMTS (cable modem termination system) infrastructure, Cisco believes operators will opt not to use “bypass” modes of distributing video over DOCSIS, where DOCSIS media access control frames are applied at the network edge to avoid sending video through the CMTS. In Cisco’s view not only do ongoing gains in processing efficiency promise to sustain the cost effectiveness of CMTS modules; the need to eliminate silos by converging services is better served with the bandwidth efficiencies that come with use of the statistical multiplexing capabilities of DOCSIS.

Traditional on-demand video services are delivered in constant bit rate mode, preventing the bandwidth savings that accrue with multiplexing variable bit rate encoded streams together. DOCSIS delivery of video overcomes this deficiency, which is especially important as the volume of time-shifted on-demand content grows.

When everything in IP is statistically multiplexed over bonded DOCSIS 3.0 channels, the bandwidth savings are even greater, Morse noted. “The economics are pretty clear to us when it comes to stat muxing on converged networks with high-speed data and video,” he said. “As more and more things converge the goal is to simplify and maximize efficiencies in distribution. If you were just focused on video, that would be one thing, but if you’re talking about converged services you get a lot more efficiencies than if you silo the video. We’re very confident this is the way operators will go.”