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FEATURE: Convergence—Today's Reality
by Mor Allon

Convergence is no longer a trend, but a reality. This convergence of the computing, telecommunications, and audiovisual industries has, simultaneously, impacted on both the demand side and the supply-side development of the satellite communications industry. Service providers, equipment vendors and end-users are directly affected by the changes in network topology, product development and company business strategy. The consequences of these changes have been so profound that I doubt they were anticipated when “convergence” was first conceived.

Initially a marketing drive, convergence was launched by the telephone and cable TV companies to provide one bill for multiple services; thus increasing the top line revenue stream without any substantial capital investments in network infrastructure. Different service providers and equipment vendors are converging through a series of merges and acquisition deals to provide “bundled”, triple play services of voice, video and phone by a single distribution channel.

Market demand for these services is on the rise with a significant annual growth. More TV channels and HDTV programming coupled with need for the higher speed Internet access and services such as IPTV and high QoS VoIP require significant bandwidth growth in the “pipe” leading to the customer in the home. Operators realize that their current topology, system architecture and network equipment may provide a short term solution but, in the long run, they cannot expand to meet future demands.

De-regulation of the Telecommunication Industry
De-regulation of the telecommunication industry has enabled the “three giants”— the phone, satellite and cable companies — to use their core competences as an anchor, to build the delivery of additional services around it. New technologies were developed using the existing infrastructure.

The cable TV industry developed the DOCISS standard for the delivery of Data and voice services over the existing coaxial and HFC networks.The phone industry developed the xDSL and xPON standards, to deliver their data and video services over existing copper twisted pair and fiber optical networks. The DBS industry has to “bundle” infrastructure and partner with an access provider to support their requirements of high speed data and voice offering to their customer base, while delivering their video content via satellite.

There are several ventures operating globally that deliver high speed data and voice services over satellite links, but these are limited and have not yet, on the whole, been accepted in the market place.

Today’s Challenges
Today’s operators are faced with technological and business challenges: to create and operate a profitable “end-to-end” delivery platform for video, voice, and high-speed data services. They have to decide what is the best topology needed to deliver these services over the different segments of this “pipe to the home”. This decision making process, is divided into several parts:
  • The overall definition of the “pipe”
  • The delivery mechanisms for the different services in the platform
  • What services to deliver and who delivers these services
  • The largest operators are considering merging into single business entities to control:
  • Delivery platform from studio to the home – by creating a “seamless pipe” from start to finish they can control technology and streamline the network, minimizing the capital expenditures and ensuring their growth capabilities for the future
  • Content – maximize their profits by eliminating the “middle man”
  • Access – capitalizing on their networks to receive incremental profits from any other services delivered over their “pipe”
The point to multi-point delivery of substantial bandwidth of video capacity seems to be dominated by the satellite industry, and it is the best delivery mechanism (cost and quality wise) to provide video services to a large geographical footprint such as a continent or several countries. Although the “digital optical backbone” is growing in its capacity it has to
overcome significant hurdles before it can support a global video delivery pipe. The distribution of these video signals to the home (i.e., the last mile access) can be accomplished by using either a wired media (fiber optic or copper based) or a wireless media (WiFi, WiMAX, or similar).

To converge the additional services, voice and data, the operators have to design their networks in a topology that merges the video content with these other services. Where this convergence occurs is the “million dollar challenge”. Does the operator integrate all the services in one location and distribute them in a star topology (point to point) or does he create a diversified network were the different services are injected locally much closer to the customer. As an example, a small satellite dish (DBS) on top of a house can deliver the video content while data and voice services are delivered via wired networks to the home.

Looking Ahead

The “source to home” convergence model has required operators and equipment vendors to develop cost-effective triple play services to the customer’s home. At present, on the supply-side the leaders are:
  • FTTx (fiber to the home/node/curb) distribution platform
  • Active P2P Ethernet for high speed data, VoIP and the delivery of the upcoming IPTV services data architectures
  • RF transport for TV and radio content delivery – point to multi point distribution of both L-Bands for DBS and CATV transport for analog and digital off-air TV, radio and CCTV services together with the existing Cable TV programming
The large service providers have realized that a single fiber optic based network based on the “best of breed” architectures for the different services (RF and Data) is the most cost effective solution for the future.
Major carriers across the world are upgrading their metro rings with the P2P Ethernet topology, thus positioning themselves for the next stage of pushing P2P Ethernet to the customer premises.

At the “last mile” these carriers are increasingly deploying an FTTx topology that currently is xPON based but P2P Ethernet FTTx architectures are becoming much more common. The migration to P2P Ethernet based architectures in the “last mile” access is in line with the strategy to create a “seamless” Ethernet pipe from “source to the home”.

Cable TV operators are driving fiber deeper into the already HFC (Hybrid Fiber Coax) based distribution systems by creating smaller optical nodes. They are also deploying FTTx architecture in their new green field deployments, a substantial architectural innovation. In addition, the cable industry is currently investigating Ethernet based solutions and it is yet unclear on how this will play out in the future.

The DBS operators are traditionally a point-to multi-point based distribution architecture: the Earth station (ground segment) portion is the point-and-satellite (space segment), and the home reception equipment is the multi point. In reality, they are a true broadcast architecture with the individual home acting as the point of reception. Their future business plans are based on a strategy to change their architecture from a broadcast mode to the creation of a seamless pipe from “source to home” which is fiber FTTx based.

The products manufactured for the deliver of services to the premises fall into three major categories:

Professional equipment: studios, Earth stations and gateways, space segment, CO, headend, and distribution plant products [both active and passive.
Commercial equipment: MDUs, gated communities and SOHO applications
Retail equipment: CPE equipment such as cable/xDSL modems/routers, VoIP gateways, small LAN switches etc.

Major technological decisions require large capital outlays to fund both the transition period and the initial set up operational costs. Consequently large operators usually try to plan ahead, defining new network topologies, system architectures and protocols to meet customer and market demands for the coming 15 to 20 years. Therefore when they look into their “crystal ball” they are confronted with the following challenges:

Cost-capital and operations
Service capabilities
Vendor neutral/inoperability
Low risk development

The changes in the technological architectures of communication infrastructure are only going to accelerate faster over the next few years — faster than we ever imagined. Competitive pressures and the global playing field for the “big players” is fueling market demand for network capacity. The ever increasing capital expenditure required to fund this momentum is causing decision makers to depend on a FTTx based network deployment that will be able to support “best of breed” delivery platforms for both RF video and high speed data. The delivery of video services into these FTTx networks will remain predominantly a satellite delivered medium, as it is currently the most cost effective transport for a large bandwidth of RF video.

About the author
Mor Allon is Foxcom Network’s Vice President of Marketing and a 25-year veteran in the international telecommunications industry. With his former service in the Israeli Air Force, Mor brings with him a vast experience of creating, managing, and developing global sales and marketing organizations. Mor is an Israeli cable TV pioneer, one of the founders of ICS, a MSO CATV operator in Israel. In 2001, after leaving Foxcom, Mor accepted the position of CEO of Ikusi Telecommunications, a multi-national Telecommunications systems hardware manufacturer, introducing its products to the North American Market. He later returned to Israel to lead the global sales and marketing organization at Telkoor Power Supplies. Mor re-joined Foxcom in January 2007, bringing the combination of top-level management, marketing capabilities and technical knowledge needed to lead the global marketing organization at OnePath Networks.