Cable’s SCTE Revamps to Support Search for Operational Efficiencies

Mark Dzuban, president & CEO, SCTE

Mark Dzuban, president & CEO, SCTE

July 5, 2010 – With little fanfare the cable industry is leveraging a reconstituted Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers to spearhead what amounts to a transformation in operations efficiency and quality of performance across multiple service categories.

SCTE, along with providing education support for field technicians, has long played the role of locking in specifications developed by CableLabs and various other industry entities for publication as complete standards. But now the organization has taken on a more proactive agenda focused on top-level issues under the guidance of president and CEO Mark Dzuban. “While SCTE performs many valuable functions for the industry, the most important contribution is in driving adoption of the technical innovations that help the industry to reduce costs, optimize network performance and enhance customer satisfaction,” Dzuban says.

Since Dzuban became CEO in January 2009 SCTE has been moving on several fronts to execute an “applied-science” strategy where field experience with myriad technologies and associated standards leads to formulation of new operations standards and guidelines, including many that could profoundly affect industry progress on cutting-edge developments. For example, providing a roadmap to IPTV migration, sorting through 3DTV issues and ongoing development of advertising standards in conjunction with growing involvement of programmers in addressing new issues are all a part of the organization’s agenda.

“When I came on board our mission was to drive improved relevance of the SCTE to our members,” Dzuban says. “We rebuilt our engineering group to go on the offensive in finding areas where we can help the industry draw more benefits out of new technology and standards. We’re not waiting for things to fall in our lap.”

Indeed, says SCTE chairman Bob Foote in a note to members, “Since I took over as the SCTE chairman of the board in late October, it has been a whirlwind of activity.” Describing what he calls the “Renaissance of the SCTE,” Foote says Dzuban, “is going at warp speed on behalf of the SCTE.”

“There is actually a great deal that happens behind the scenes,” he adds. “While we value our history and the social aspects of our society, providing value to our members and our members’ employers is our main mission.” Now, he notes, the organization is targeting initiatives to senior level management in addition to the traditional types of initiatives that have focused on techs in the field.

Lines of Collaboration

Dzuban, who formerly served as executive vice president and vice chairman of Cedar Point Communications, has initiated a CTO advisory council consisting of top engineers from member MSOs and is about to hire a CTO for the SCTE. He says much of the new direction underway at SCTE is a reflection of the input from the advisory council, which meets by conference call once a month.

For example, the organization’s focus on building greater expertise in IP technology comes in response to guidance from the new advisory council. “We brought in more people with an IP background, and we’re working on hiring a CTO with a strong IP-centric experience,” Dzuban says. “Securing the services of a CTO will enable us to work more directly with operators, programmers and vendors to identify needs and shape solutions that have real, meaningful impact on their businesses.”

SCTE’s role in formulating IP migration processes is quite different from what CableLabs is doing with ongoing evolution of the DOCSIS standard, Dzuban explains. “CableLabs has pride of authorship with each generation of DOCSIS,” he says. “We look at what’s a better mousetrap based on what operators have deployed in the field, their approaches to network management and the overall life cycle management issues. SCTE has a bit more freedom to look at what works and what doesn’t.”

In some cases this may lead to feedback to CableLabs where specifications may need to be tweaked. There’s also the possibility that new variations on the DOCSIS standard, such as Comcast’s Converged Multi-Access Platform (CMAP) strategy (see June issue, p. 8), could be formalized into standards without going through CableLabs.

“MSOs have a right to choose what’s best for them,” Dzuban observes. “In recent years MSOs have chosen individual approaches. I believe there will be MSOs with unique problems and solutions that may become more globally adopted over time. Some percent of our standards come from specifications developed by CableLabs, and some greater percentage comes from vendors and other interested parties.”

With a membership of some 13,000 CTOs, engineers, system operation managers, technicians and field operations personnel from the U.S. and 70 other countries, SCTE’s standards work is focused on a global constituency where, increasingly, the prominence of cable telecommunications has made such standards a part of the larger global telecommunications standardization effort. “I’m being asked to join the ITU,” Dzuban notes.

In the case of standards that result from CableLabs’ efforts, Dzuban describes that organization’s specifications as proprietary standards developed by the U.S. cable industry, which, when they come to the SCTE for adoption, “are reasonably well nailed down.” SCTE, as an organization accredited for public standards development by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), has the role of vetting, formalizing and approving specifications for presentation as complete standards to ANSI, which captures and publishes them within its domain.

As SCTE moves more aggressively to develop standards on its own, there is some overlap between its efforts and those of CableLabs. For example, last year SCTE inaugurated a program to investigate standardization requirements for cable carriage of 3D content, which is also a subject of great interest at CableLabs. Where CableLabs is closely examining the various formats in an effort to achieve consensus among MSO members on what steps to take in the evolution to ever higher quality 3DTV, SCTE’s 3D over Cable project is focused on identifying any changes that might have to be made to existing SCTE standards, including transport protocols, along with what engineering and technical criteria should be adopted to facilitate the provision of 3D content over cable networks.

“There are several problems to be solved,” Dzuban says. “Between CableLabs and ourselves there will be a good amount of collaboration on these issues. We’re moving down separate tracks, but we’re always comparing notes.”

But these are very early days in the evolution of 3DTV where the pace of technology innovation makes it hard to predict exactly what the best path will be once there’s a real opportunity to scale service with significant amounts of programming deliverable to a mass audience of 3D-enabled customers. “We’re always careful not to commit ourselves prematurely,” Dzuban says. “Right now we have other priorities that are more immediate.”

The New Agenda

Along with helping define IPTV migration paths suited to specific operational environments, SCTE’s agenda includes initiatives, some still in the early formative stages, on traffic engineering, network element management, business services, disaster recovery, energy management and advertising insertion. While some of this activity parallels initiatives at CableLabs, most of it addresses new areas where consistency, efficiency and scalability are essential to the well-being of member companies.

For example, when it comes to energy management, “taking steps to better use and re-use our resources is vitally important to the long-term success of the cable industry,” says Jerry Parkins, chair of SCTE’s Engineering Committee and director of technology and standards at Comcast. “As we move into this new area of focus, we believe that there is tremendous value in making it possible to complement the existing knowledge base of the SCTE Standards Program with subject matter experts from outside of the industry.”

In mid June SCTE announced it was forming a Sustainability Management Subcommittee (SMS) to execute on the previously announced Smart Energy Management Initiative. Parkins says the subcommittee’s goal is to identify best practices for reducing power consumption and costs, increasing operating efficiency and minimizing disposal effects of outdated equipment.

The U.S. cable industry is on pace to spend $1.1 billion to $1.2 billion on power for headend and plant operations this year, Dzuban says, which projects out to a spending level of about $1.7 billion in 2017 under current consumption patterns. This could balloon to $2.5 billion if operators aren’t mindful of how certain decisions could impact power usage, he says.

SCTE hopes both to educate operators on where to look for the potential energy pitfalls as they weigh decisions in areas such as DOCSIS 3.0 channel bonding and migration to all-digital services and to identify procedural reforms within current consumption patterns that could produce substantial savings.

“We believe we can reduce energy consumption by as much as 20 to 30 percent and by a minimum of 10 percent over a five-year period,” Dzuban says. For example, big savings could be attained if the industry adopted a standard for consistency in the placement of ventilation outlets on servers in data centers, which account for 30 percent of overall power consumption. Side ventilation, common to some brands, inhibits air flow in typical side-by-side rack configurations. “We’ll create a standard where air intake and outflow is positioned for maximum efficiency,” Dzuban says.

There will also be guidelines to alert operators to the energy impact of channel bonding, which consumes processor energy at the Cable Modem Termination System and, with the addition of more tuners in customer premises gateways, at the end points as well. Operators will be able to calculate the energy impact of bonding so they can more fully understand the economic impact of bonding more channels than needed for eventual worst case scenarios versus bonding on an as-needed basis.

Similarly, the guidelines will alert operators to how retaining analog TV channels results in higher energy consumption in line amplifiers on coax plant, which will help them to more accurately gauge the tradeoffs between simulcasting analog and digital and deploying DTAs (digital terminal adapters) to eliminate most analog channels. Attention to such details could be worth tens of millions of dollars in savings over the next decade.

IPTV Migration and Network Engineering

More accurate procedures for calculating ongoing transport capacity requirements should also produce substantial savings over time, Dzuban notes. This dovetails with the IPTV migration analysis where a better understanding of what metrics to use in defining usage patterns around different service categories – video, gaming, data, voice, etc. – and where the choke points will occur in the network are essential to good planning. So too is common agreement on how to prioritize service streams so that when blockage occurs the decisions on which packets to drop are consistent.

Dzuban also notes that one of the main goals of the IPTV migration effort is to provide chip-makers a better understanding of what to expect so that they can provide new silicon with functionalities that can be activated over time as operators install new devices and network elements in advance of undertaking the migration. “You want to allow manufacturers to get a jump on the innovations component so they can create processors where certain functions might sit idle in terminal gear and later be activated with new provisioning tools,” he says. “It’s easier and cheaper to change provisioning tools than it is to wreck out devices that won’t work in the new IP service environment.”

Where support for improved revenue generation is concerned, SCTE’s initiatives on business services and advertising are positioned to be prime contributors. The focus with the business services initiative is on helping the industry move into the tier-1 level of enterprises, where interoperability and cooperation among MSOs will be essential to serving large corporations with multiple facilities locations. Common metrics and approaches to restoral time are required for service level agreements that can be adhered to across multiple networks.

There is also work on the physical plant side that has important ramifications for business services, Dzuban notes. Here the focus is on creating networking domain standards for interfacing cable networks with gigabit Ethernet and T-1 traffic flows. “We need to be able to peer with external carriers so that as traffic moves across networks we can extend our diagnostic tools and surveillance capabilities into the termination points and evaluate what’s happening, which will result in much faster mean times to repair and recovery,” he says.

The Ad Standards Agenda

SCTE’s Digital Program Insertion standard, SCTE 130, has already had a big impact on MSO efforts to achieve consistent and scalable approaches to driving addressable advertising, but there’s much more to be done, especially as SCTE draws programmers into the standardization process. “A lot of people who have been looking at the process from outside want to have input so that their concerns are taken into account,” Dzuban says.

In May SCTE officially launched an outreach campaign targeting programmers. At that time HBO and Turner Broadcasting System became part of the program, joining Discovery Communications, which was the first programmer to become engaged as an organizational standards member.

“The creation of standards is quite often a cumulative process,” notes Craig Cuttner, senior vice president for advanced technology at HBO. “For instance, the encoding knowledge we acquired from our work with VOD has become very valuable in the creation of advertising insertion standards. This is just one example of why it is extremely important for programmers to maintain a high level of involvement, and ensure that the process reflects as much of the collective vision of the industry as possible.”

One key area of work to be done in the SCTE 130 initiative has to do with creating an interface that allows interoperability between campaign management systems used by programmers and the ones used by operators. While standard interfaces support interoperability within those implementation levels, the absence of programmer-to-operator campaign management interoperability requires programmers to work with a chosen vendor to integrate with whatever vendor platforms are used by operators. This creates a time-consuming, costly barrier to programmers’ taking the initiative in driving advanced advertising across multiple operator footprints.

“We need standard interfaces connecting these two layers,” Dzuban says. “And there’s also an emerging need for standardizing management of ads in 3D.”

Defining the Intelligent Network

Coming in 2011 is a major new initiative tied to network element management that promises to have major ramifications for efficiency in cable operations. Here the goal is to move beyond traditional network diagnostics, which look for malfunctions in equipment, to be able to identify problem sources resulting from human error.

“Two thirds of network failures are the result of human intervention,” Dzuban says. “The diagnostics system needs to be able to identify deviations in procedural compliance and analyze how they may be contributing to a given problem or creating conditions that will lead to problems.”

The complexities of network operations have reached a point where reliance on human analysis of traditional diagnostic metrics can’t keep up with the requirements of managing the intelligent network, he adds. Not only must new methods be developed to look at compliance issues as well as mechanical issues; the analytical capabilities must be able to incorporate data from across the network and quickly compile relevant information into a full picture of what the root causes are to any given issue.

“We’re going to use Moore’s Law to our advantage,” Dzuban says, in reference to the immense processing capacity required for this type of analytic work. “And artificial intelligence technology is going to be a part of it as well.”

With AI on its radar screen, it’s clear that using the term “Renaissance” in conjunction with what’s happening at SCTE is not an overstatement.