US cable operators have not been the most prominent players in the virtualization effort to date, but that is clearly changing. When a significant number of cable technologists gathered two weeks ago in Denver, Colo., for Light Reading's annual Cable Next-Gen Technologies and Strategies conference, SDN and NFV were a much more significant part of the discussion than they had been in the recent past.
And as is often the case, CableLabs is leading the way, having last year lured BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA)'s Don Clarke, a founding player in the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) NFV Industry Specifications Group, to its staff. Clarke made several things clear, both during and after his participation in a panel I moderated on the whole NFV-SDN space. (See Cable Sweats SDN/NFV Challenges).
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First, cable is moving at a deliberate pace to explore and implement virtualization in a very practical fashion, and secondly, at the heart of that practical approach is a dedication to open source approaches.
There are many reasons why it makes total sense for the cable industry to embrace virtualization. Like telecom players, major cable operators are seeing their traditional revenues under attack -- pay-TV revenues are shrinking with cord-cutting and the cost of content is making profits even slimmer. Companies such as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) with its major content ownership may seem protected from the latter trend, but there are still other reasons to pursue virtualization.
Those reasons come in the form of disintermediation by the major Internet players -- cable companies have no more interest in being "just the pipe" than their telecom counterparts. And they face the same pressures to reduce costs, break their dependence on vendor-specific hardware and embrace the scalable flexible New IP realm as any telco.
Like telecom players -- but arguably to a greater degree -- cable operators have a dizzying array of devices in the field that, if converted from specialized boxes to software running on off-the-shelf hardware or running in the cloud -- would be substantially less costly and easier to manage and especially to update. That would mean the reality of more on-demand services, and faster turn-up of new service offerings.
Those are some of the goals behind the Cox Communications Inc. 's Athena project, which Jeff Finkelstein, executive director of strategic architecture, outlined in Denver. Cox is working with CableLabs and what they develop will likely be shortly available to other cable operators in some form or fashion. (See Cox's Athena to Virtualize Home Network.)
And that may be why US cable operators will soon assume a leadership position in actually deploying practical solutions based on virtualization. While they face many of the same operational and transition issues that telecom players must overcome, they are much more likely to address those challenges as a unit. The solutions that are developed are much more likely to be quickly codified by CableLabs and to evolve in a patterned manner, as other technology standards have.
That would seem to give a large cable industry that -- at least to this point -- doesn't compete with itself in any serious way a leg up over large telecom players who cooperate to a point but then need to differentiate when it comes to deployments.
Of course, that competitive picture could well change with the emergence of OTT offerings and the merger of Comcast and Time-Warner Cable -- if the latter ever does go through. (See Comcast Says TWC Deal Will Close Later.)
And in the open source realm, the cable industry's contributions will be fed back into the process and serve to benefit everyone. But the specific deployment benefits for cable will be undeniable and that could mean new leaders in the virtualization clubhouse before long.
Clarke, meanwhile, remains chair of the ETSI NFV ISG's Network Operator Council, in his role as CableLabs' principal architect for virtualization technologies. You can read his latest thoughts in this blog.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading