Leaders: Change is Good (But Not Easy)


By Carl Weinschenk Senior Editor

At the highest level, three of the interviews done at Cable-Tec Expo '13 for Broadband Technology Report's new "Three Questions with a Leader" feature show how cable operators are dealing with the one constant the industry always has known - and always will: Change. 

Change comes in many guises. Of the three interviews, the executive who discussed change at the highest level was Jeff Finkelstein, the executive director of strategic architecture for Cox Communications.

Finkelstein discussed two related shifts that hit at the very core of how networks operate: software defined networkis (SDNs) and network function virtualization (NFV). Both are conceptually similar. They split functions in networks and equipment, respectively, in a manner that increases flexibility potentially by orders of magnitude.

SDNs, Finkelstein said, separate the control plane from the forwarding plane. Put more simply, the intelligence that handles routing tables and otherwise determines where data has to go is distinct from the hardware that handles the more mundane task of sending the data on its (hopefully) merry way.

This independence means that those higher level functions can be geographically distinct and centralized. The equipment in the field generally will be "dumber" and simply follow the instructions sent to it.

In the same way, NFV focuses on subdividing formerly cohesive tasks and performing them at different places. The speed of modern broadband networks makes it seem as if those tasks are done at the same point. They aren't, and the flexibility can increase efficiency, reduce costs or both. In Finkelstein's words, NFV will "decompose network functions into their constituent parts."

SDNs are a bit ahead of NFV on the developmental timeline. The concept has huge implications for cable operators. Indeed, SDN and NFV are likely to be bigger and bigger deals as the industry convenes at Cable-Tec Expos of the next decade or so.


Jorge Salinger, the vice president of access architecture for Comcast, addressed two topics that are more front of mind for cable operators: DOCSIS 3.1 and the Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP).

Salinger noted that CableLabs used the conference to announce that the specs for DOCSIS 3.1 are on the verge of being released. He provided insight into Comcast's progress on the technology: The MSO will have about 50 CCAP devices in the field by the end of the year and plans to have several hundred in service by the end of 2014. The goal of CCAP - to marry DOCSIS and QAM functionality in a fluid and operator-determined manner - tracks very closely with the concept of creating network flexibility via SDN and NFV.

As Salinger, Finkelstein (along with Mike Kelson, Time Warner Cable's director of network architecture, and Tom Cloonan, ARRIS' CTO of Network Solutions) discussed at BTR's "Managing the Meta Picture" presentation at The Cable Show in June, vendors will choose their own path in determining precisely how the QAM and DOCSIS functions are knit together. The key decision points are which come first and whether the linking is actual - both functions in the same chassis - or virtual. Salinger pointed out that the system is being designed to enable a painless upgrade of CCAP from DOCSIS 3.0 to 3.1.

CCAP is entering that stage in which the cable ecosystem is developing a variety of elements, from chip sets upward. Ironically, the best sign that progress is being made is when things get quiet. That phase doesn't last too long, however. CCAP will be making deployment and implementation headlines soon. "Things will move relatively rapidly in [20] '15," Salinger said. "There will be a lot of actively behind the scenes in '14."

The Move to IP

Smaller operators have the same overall concerns as their bigger cousins: Satisfying subscribers who are doing more things with more devices from a far wider variety of places. The pace of change can differ between top five and lower tier operators, however. The cable industry, after all, traditionally has a profile in which a handful of big operators set the agenda. They are better positioned to do the heavy technical lifting, nail down processes and procedures - and take the brunt of the arrows in their corporate backs.

Joe Jensen, the CTO of Buckeye CableSystem, discussed the need for operators to gracefully move to all-IP status. The industry in the past has added a silo of functionality as it expanded into new services. Video was discrete from data and voice. This works, but becomes an increasingly impractical approach in an IP world in which data inherently is capable of flowing anywhere.

In other words, the days in which the operator selects a group of channel that subscribers can take or leave are long gone. "In effect, we - and other operators - have to decide what we want to be when we grow up," Jensen said. "We've made the decision that we want to be the aggregator of choice for our customers for entertainment, education and other services."

Buckeye is not passively waiting. The company soon will introduce an app that will deliver two local sports channels to iPads and iPhones, Jensen said.

There clearly are technical challenges to moving to IP. It's significant. However, Jensen sees a human issue as being among the most important. Teams accustomed to dealing with video delivery issues will need to become more product focused. "A video engineer of the future will have to be very different than the video engineer of today," he said.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at carlw@pennwell.com.

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