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Summertime 2011: Observations of a CTO

By Bob McIntyre, CTO, Cisco Service Provider Group

I was digging around my PowerPoints on the laptop recently, getting ready for our “Cisco Live!” event, and came across a set of predictions I’d made, five years ago.

A CTO, making predictions five years out? What could possibly go wrong, right? Well, I wouldn’t be bringing it up unless it was so off base as to be funny, — or close enough to “correct” to boast a little.

Turns out it was mostly the latter, so allow me to boast a little. -- Just a little. I promise.

Back then, in 2006, I said what will make service providers successful would be the delivery to consumers of their own personal HD video stream, on any device, wherever they were. A two-way stream. (This was the year before the iPhone and smart phones hit the market, and four years before “pads” did.)

I also surmised that triple and quad play (voice, video, data and wireless) bundles would continue to be the big thing; that operators needed to move drastically faster on what we now call “apps;” and that what we now call Wi-Fi mobile hot spots and 4th generation wireless (back then, we called it “fixed mobile convergence”) would be critical.

At the time, colleagues from around the industry said I was wrong. “No, Bob, it’ll take more than 5 years” butted up against,  “No, Bob, all of that will happen much sooner!”

And here we are, five years later. Triple and quad-play bundles are continuing to grow. Hot spots are happening. And, one of the biggest technology shifts I’ve seen in 30+ years in cable is steamrolling into the marketplace – the shift of video to IP-- to a lot of connected devices.

Think about it: The Internet is driving down the costs of transcoding, trans-rating and encoding. Wireless is going broadband. Content delivery networks are deeply augmenting traditional satellite-to-headend transport mechanisms. Everyone is pushing toward advanced compression methods, like H.264. Authorization and authentication techniques are enabling us to watch subscription video on more and more screens, while still seeing improved performance on the big screen (HDTV).

Hardware is receding; software is advancing – all over the place. Not just in cable and telecom, but in many, if not most, major industries. We’re certainly seeing it, particularly as it relates to the features and functions of the traditional cable set-top box. All over the globe, service providers are first shifting toward hybrid set-tops, which can work with legacy MPEG transport while carrying IP video traffic.

Beyond that, I think we’ll get to the point some day where service providers won’t need just physical set-tops – they’ll want virtual boxes as an option. Sure, some will always insist on having the big box connected to the big screen, and legacy systems will continue to drive revenue. But there’s a growing base of people who’d rather not have set-tops, or who will want video to work on all their new toys, without a set-top in front of it….and we’re ok with that. – Our Videoscape platform will provide the next generation of TV that is simpler for consumers, combining the cloud, the network, and a range of client devices beyond just the set-top box.

These days, I spend a lot of time in the air, going to talk with operators all over the globe. Probably the most interesting difference I’m hearing, from a couple of years ago to now, relates to over-the-top video. It is this: I don’t know of a single service provider who wants to openly compete with OTT video. Instead, they’re saying, “we’ll join them”.

If my crystal ball is right, everyone is going to add adaptively streamed video, over CDNs, to their current portfolios. What used to be “the network” is now becoming “the cloud plus the network.” Service providers of all stripes are going to find ways to make B2B2C business models work by leveraging the investment they already made in their networks, with new cloud functionality added.  Meaning: Sorry, Amazon, you can sing “hey, hey, you, you, -- get off of my cloud” as loud as you can. You’re still not the only cloud in town anymore.

So what’s top of mind for me now?  Helping our service provider customers to make that IP transition efficiently, so that everybody wins. It’s the reason we aligned our resources around Videoscape – to help customers with an interoperable, standards-based, soup-to-nuts batch of hardware, software, network, and cloud components, for use together or with competing products, to get to that next step.

Check back with me in five (no, three) years…and until then, enjoy the rest of your summer!

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