A Cable Guy Goes to NAB

BTR Managing Editor Ron HendricksonIt sounds like the start of a bad joke - "So a cable guy goes to NAB ..." - but that's exactly what happened in Las Vegas last week. And indeed, it happened at scale: Cable folks made up a substantial portion of the 100,000+ attendees and nearly 1,800 exhibiting companies at the show. Moreover, the cable presence at the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center - at more than a million square feet of exhibit space, NAB covers more ground than some farms - has been increasing in recent years.

What can a cable guy gain from a broadcaster show? Quite a lot, actually, once you get past the quad-copters and every kind of camera gear you can possibly imagine. The single biggest takeaway is that advanced video technologies are converging and blurring the lines between the various video provider industries. Convergence isn't new - we've been following it for years - but now it's accelerating, especially since the advent of multiscreen, OTT and their underlying adaptive streaming technologies.

Increasingly, cable ops, satellite ops, broadcasters, telcos and online video providers are using the same technologies - streaming technologies generally are network-agnostic. For example, a streaming service from, say, HBO has to do pretty much the same things as one from Comcast or Netflix. Many traditional cable vendors are selling into video industries other than cable, and video tech vendors from the broadcast and online video worlds are pitching their wares to cable ops. This particular trend is so strong that BTR is planning a new product launch around it; watch for more on this in late May or early June.

4K and UltraHD drew a lot of interest, mainly on the compression side for service providers, who are looking for ways around 4K's big bandwidth hit. Use of HEVC in encoders is accelerating, and ways are being found to increase the efficiency of H-264. Another compression technology called Perseus was announced by V-Nova just before the show, and it's supposed to provide UltraHD quality at HD bitrates. This is brand-new, and the industry at large hasn't had much chance to dig into it yet, so it'll be interesting to see where that goes.

 HDR (high dynamic range) video offers an interesting alternative to 4K, with equivalent or better perceived video quality at bitrates of HD plus 15%, vs. HD times 4 for 4K. (NAB aside, CableLabs is doing some fun experiments with HDR in its Video Quality Lab.) But the standards for HDR aren't all nailed down yet, and it requires buy-in from the consumer electronics industry. HDR looks like it's still at least a couple years out.

Cloud technologies figured strongly in Vegas, both in network functions and in consumer-facing services such as cloud DVR and user interfaces. Purpose-built video hardware isn't going away any time soon, but there's a definite move toward software running on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers. Cost savings, flexibility and upgradability are the key drivers here.

Multiscreen video, both service provider and OTT, remains a popular topic: processing it, distributing it, monetizing it via dynamic ad insertion and targeted advertising, monitoring it, and securing it to keep the content owners happy. None of these are new topics, but the amount of activity around them suggests a lot of work yet to be done.

So kind of the bottom line is that there's a lot more for a cable guy at NAB than you might expect. The show is also growing. It's worth adding to your itinerary.

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