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Can MSOs Keep PacketCable On Hold?


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The Industry's Lackadaisical Deployment of IP Telephony Could Allow

May 1, 2003

By Michael Harris, President, Kinetic Strategies and Publisher, Cable Datacom News

For the last few years, this one included, major MSOs have continued to maintain that "next year" will the mark the beginning of large-scale IP telephony service deployments using PacketCable technology. While the lackadaisical pace of voice over IP (VoIP) deployment can be attributed to legitimate MSO concerns about PacketCable product stability (which has finally been answered by CableLabs' qualification of two call management servers) and the underlying economics of cable telephony, it also seems to reflect a belief among cable operators that the voice business will always be available to them, on their timeline. But is this a fair assumption?



Last month in Cable Datacom News, we wrote about upstart IP telephony providers, like Vonage and FreeWorldDialup, that are using session initiation protocol (SIP) technology to offer Voip over cable modem connections today, without the participation of MSOs.

By way of background, SIP is a signaling protocol used for establishing sessions, such as for a telephone call or videoconference, over an IP network. The architecture places the application intelligence in the end device, such as a SIP phone, and assumes a "stupid network" is available for connectivity between them. PacketCable, by contrast, places intelligence in the access network itself. Specifically, a centralized call management server (CMS), working with a cable modem termination system (CMTS), manages connection quality over a DOCSIS 1.1/2.0 link to a multimedia terminal adapter (MTA).

Obviously, broadband voice providers like Vonage are minor players, and in themselves, are not a serious threat to the cable industry. Microsoft and the consumer electronics giants, however, are in an entirely different category. In a move that has received zero coverage in the insulated cable industry, Microsoft announced on April 2 at the Spring Voice on the Net (VON) conference a comprehensive Voip upgrade to Windows CE that is based on, you guessed it, SIP.

In essence, Microsoft and other consumer electronics software providers are enabling the next-generation of PDAs to also act as IP phones and messaging devices. Think about it. With a SIP Voip stack, 802.11 wireless interface and headset connector, a PDA becomes an IP cordless phone. A phone that could be used on a WiFi network at work or school, at hot-spot locations like Starbucks, and let's not forget, on the in-home WiFi network sitting behind a cable modem. At VON, several players were demonstrating the capability on handhelds. And besides VoIP, these devices are perfect for instant messaging, email and Internet chat, through any WiFi network. Think of this device as a multimedia Blackberry. By now, hopefully you have realized that PacketCable has no value in this equation.

PacketCable proponents are quick to respond that SIP services running over best-effort broadband connections do not include quality-of-service (QoS) guarantees. And as a result, SIP-based voice services may not match the fidelity of PacketCable telephony. True, but mediocre call quality has not stopped cell phone penetration from climbing through the roof. Why? Because consumers seem quite happy to trade voice fidelity for mobility and ubiquity.

Furthermore, the QoS argument for PacketCable is somewhat of a misnomer. First, very few MSOs have even invested in DOCSIS 1.1/2.0 CMTS upgrades to provide the QoS that PacketCable requires. Second, QoS by definition is only an issue on an oversubscribed network. Thanks to the extra bandwidth available with DOCSIS 2.0, the symmetric standard MSOs raced to certify before even deploying DOCSIS 1.1, capacity could be abundant and negate the value of QoS. Finally, many MSOs are actually planning to use PacketCable to offer second-line phone service. That is, a service that by definition does not meet the reliability of traditional telco dialtone.

Really, at the end of the day, does the kid who wants to instant message and voice chat on a handheld even care about QoS? And let's not forget, if MSOs decided SIP-based services were the way to go, they could at any time opt to easily provide QoS for SIP services on their networks at the IP layer to improve connection quality. How about a "packet priority" upgrade plan for Vonage or other SIP-service subscribers with cable modems?

So, yes, the QoS available to PacketCable services through DOCSIS 1.1/2.0 is nice. But is it really compelling enough to compete with the SIP tsunami that may be building among Microsoft and the world's largest consumer electronics manufacturers? MSOs talk about all the great applications that will emerge over PacketCable multimedia networks in the future. However, MSOs do not create IP applications, and the folks that do are used to writing to platforms supplied by the likes of Microsoft and Sony.

What's also interesting in this equation is that the cable industry's much-touted CableHome gateway plan could itself be the enabler of PacketCable's demise. Huh? Consider this. CableHome's specialty is making Ethernet, WiFi, HPNA or HomePlug the standard interfaces to consumer devices in the home, rather than DOCSIS. In the CableHome model, DOCSIS is just a WAN interface. This effectively encourages consumers to invest in IP devices with WiFi and the like to plug into the broadband IP network in their home, or anywhere else for that matter.

The emergence of SIP as a compelling application and service platform is honestly no threat to MSOs. They can easily adjust their networks to deliver high-quality and high-value SIP services. The real losers would be the scores of vendors that bought into the industry's PacketCable hype machine, investing huge amounts in R&D for leading edge CMTS, MTA, and CMS technology. At the end of the day, they are the ones who would be on the other end of a SIP call from an MSO saying, "Sorry, folks, we have some bad news for you."



 
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1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

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