CTO, Comcast: “We believe in convergence; we believe in change”

Tony Werner, executive vice president & chief technology officer of Comcast Cable, USA

Tony Werner, executive vice president & chief technology officer of Comcast Cable, USA is delivering a keynote speech on Day Two of the Broadband World Forum 2012, taking place on the 16 – 18 October 2012 at the RAI Exhibition and Convention Centre, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Ahead of the show we speak to him about how Comcast is using innovation to keep the cable company at the forefront of the broadband market.

ISPs don’t come much bigger than Comcast. As the largest cable provider in the US, the company is also one of the largest broadband service providers in the world. As such, the decisions it makes in terms of technology and strategy will inevitably have an impact in other parts of the world.

Its network currently passes 52 per cent of the US population and offers speeds of 100Mbps and 50Mbps across almost its entire footprint, with 19 million customers subscribing to these high-speed services at the last count. A lucky few have access to throughputs of up to 305Mbps, some of the fastest broadband speeds available commercially anywhere in the world, though unsurprisingly these speeds are, for now, the preserve of power users.

While there are no immediate plans to push past these headline numbers, last year Comcast demonstrated speeds of 1Gbps on its network by combining 32 of its DOCSIS3 channels, clearly demonstrating that there is headroom in its network architecture. So why not do it if it’s possible?

“There’s no technical limitation for not doing this [now] but there are some timing limitations,” says Tony Werner, chief technical officer at Comcast. The modem hardware is capable of handling the speeds, Werner says, but the technology is ahead of demand. So while it will happen at some point, the timing of the decision will be: “balanced against consumer, need and want… HFC (Hybrid Fibre Coaxial) has tons of capacity and can easily go to a billion bits per second when the consumer needs it,” he says.

However, Werner points out that above 100Mbps the law of diminishing returns kicks in. “Once you go above 100Mbps there are a lot of other parts of the eco-system that don’t operate at that speed anyway, including the internet itself; the speeds at which the servers can stream out are restricted. And it’s going to be a while until that point of the network starts to catch up.”

Of course, there are others who are already pushing out higher connection speeds. Google has recently pulled the trigger on its much vaunted Google Fiber project, offering internet and TV at speeds of up to 1Gbps, though at the moment it’s only available in the Kansas City area. Should this be a concern?

“I think competition is great because it keeps us on our game and makes us stronger. In this country, it was the cable modem that stimulated the telcos to do DSL – all competition is good,” he says.  As to whether Google could eventually compete with Comcast in the TV market, Werner is honest enough to admit he doesn’t know. “Kansas City isn’t in our service area, so we’re not directly close to it, but [Google] do a lot of content and other stuff such as YouTube, which is a service that continues to grow in popularity. I think it will be an interesting product for a lot of people.”

That’s not to say the Comcast is not innovating. One recent, major development was the introduction of the firm’s X1 cloud-based TV platform. Werner says that Comcast spent two and half years working on the platform to create what he describes as, “a brand new experience.” The key aspect of the X1 platform is that most of the logic and data is stored in the cloud rather than on the local device. This enables Comcast to move very rapidly in terms of implementing changes to the service, and to introduce those changes to all customers at once, Werner says. Crucially the firm is not restricted by the device each customer is using to access the service, be it a set-top box or a Microsoft Xbox.

A key example of the strengths of this platform, Werner says was the recent London Olympics. “Two weeks before the Olympics we had just a beautiful spread that showed up all the Olympic content,” he says. “It had a picture of the venues, it had other pieces, and you could go through it—and that was something we put up overnight. As the Olympics were winding down we were able to take it down and make all sorts of modifications. It’s end-point agnostic.”

Another area in which Werner says Comcast recently led the field was the activation of native IPv6 addressing on its network—and he explains why it chose to be one of the early movers on this. “We thought we would run out of IP addresses sooner than is actually going to happen,” he says. So we started working on this six or seven years ago, readying things in terms of the equipment we buy and in terms of what goes into customer’s homes. So we are in pretty good shape with most of our CPE in the homes.”

While Werner says awareness and adoption of IPv6 has greatly improved from a year ago, he identifies a significant opportunity for consumer electronics companies, including home networking equipment vendors, to improve IPv6 deployment by shipping IPv6-capable devices and enabling IPv6 by default. Significantly, though, Werner reveals that during the Olympics over a million IPv6-only streams were delivered through its network, so clearly some progress is being made.

Inevitably some technical decisions that fall to a CTO to make will be more controversial than others. Today, perhaps, none more so than how data caps will work on the network, an issue that particularly affects subscribers to the network’s higher speed packages. Werner says that Comcast has just removed its 250GB data cap and is currently in the process of running usage-based models to determine what is fair. “We’re running tests to understand how consumers react and how pricing ties into it. We’re going to introduce different data usage approaches in multiple markets and see the impact on customers. We’re very much focused right now on the customer experience,” Werner says.

Another political issue that could potentially affect how the network is run is net neutrality and Werner is insistent that Comcast abides by the rules laid down by the FCC. “[Net neutrality is] a very complex issue that means a lot of different things in different countries. In general, we are highly supportive of the principles that were put out by the FCC, meaning that content is not discriminated against—and we do not discriminate against devices. We are supportive of an open internet and one that promotes innovation, and everything that goes with it.”

Werner also says that there is a lot more that the network can offer aside from raw speed. Specifically this will be the introduction of more intelligence into the network. “The biggest [trend] I see is personalized, curated navigation and intelligent personal assistance,” he says. “As we get into tens and hundreds of thousands of apps and pieces of content that you can watch at any moment of time, you’ll have intelligence to help you decide what to watch and how to find it.” Werner believes that there is a lot more innovation to come in this space. Returning to the potential that the firm sees in its X1 cloud platform, Werner says: “We believe in cross-platform and the threading of experiences. We will continue to bring more aspects of your phone to the TV, and the experience you have on the web to the TV. And we will continue to bring more of the TV to your web enabled devices.”

While many are ready to put cable providers in the category of ‘old world’ companies, Werner believes that it is the spirit of innovation that keeps Comcast fresh and relevant. “We believe in convergence; we believe in change. I probably have never worked for a company that embraced change more than Comcast,” he says.

The Broadband World Forum 2012 is taking place on the 16 – 18 October 2012 at the RAI Exhibition and Convention Centre, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Click here now to register your interest.
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