A Look Ahead in Cable Tech

Execs from Charter, Comcast, Cox, Liberty Global and Mediacom offer a deep dive on the smart home, A.I. and the battle for top tech talent

Why This Matters

Smart home and Internet of Things technologies are becoming a more crucial component of cable operators’ businesses.

In addition to delivering advanced services into the home, cable operators are also getting more intimately involved with apps and offerings that reach into all corners of the home.

That includes home automation and security services and other connected elements that make up the bigger Internet of Things. Cable operators are also in a fight to gain and retain top engineering talent in the face of well-heeled, technology-focused competitors such as Google, Amazon and Facebook.

To get a fix on these areas of importance ahead of this week’s SCTE-ISBE Cable-Tec Expo in Denver (Oct. 17-20), B&C caught up with a handful of top technology and engineering executives.

Taking part in this year’s virtual tech roundtable — an aggregation of separate interviews with Multichannel News technology editor Jeff Baumgartner and columnist Leslie Ellis of Ellis Edits — were Kevin Hart, executive vice president and chief product and technology officer, Cox Communications; Dan Hennessy, chief architecture architect, Liberty Global; Jay Rolls, chief technology officer and senior vice president, Charter Communications; JR Walden, senior vice president of technology and CTO, Mediacom Communications; and Tony Werner, president of technology and product, Comcast Cable.

The edited transcript below is a continuation of a discussion with the executives highlighted in the Oct. 9 issue of Multichannel News covering areas such as capacity, wireless and mobile, and video.

The Home of the Future
To what extent are you gearing up to automate people’s homes to make them more useful?
Dan Hennessey:
Our automation focus is very much linked to our core products and services, and where we can bring clear value right now: Voice search and control of our video services. Ensuring that all our platforms work in harmony. Installing new hardware in the home, like WiFi APs, such that it happens seamlessly. Giving customers a way to easily onboard third party IoT devices in their home.

What’s as important here is the business logic we’re building in our back office for “connectivity services.” It’s similar to what we’ve done for our video products and services, in terms of having a flexible, microservices-based back end that is open to third party integration.

JR Walden: We're an iControl [Networks] affiliate [Comcast and Alarm.com bought pieces of iControl earlier this year]. It hasn’t been a huge business for us. I think we have concerns that trying to compete with CE companies in that space … is going to be tough for iControl, let alone Mediacom.

We want to be a service provider. We think we’re good at being a service provider, so what’s the service here? We imagine providing some services to help facilitate and manage the customer’s smart home and IoT device future. I don’t know if we’ll manage the service as a whole … but we think there’s a place to play there. Like maybe you could use your Amazon Echo to do things on your TiVo set-top box … rather than using the remote or using a voice remote.

Rather than trying to be the guy who does everything, let’s work with what people want, even if Google Home is the device or it’s an Amazon device. We’re going to come out with a voice remote, too, that works with Nuance [Communications].

Kevin Hart: We’re making great advances in our connected home and smart home platforms. We’re leveraging the existing platform, but we’ve also got other future-state possibilities, and coupling the Cox HomeLife platform offering with our Panoramic WiFi [product]. We've been going market to market and connecting a home and making it a true smart home with over 50 or so connected devices in the home, and virtual reality and home care demos, robotic dogs, you name it. We’re also doing a little bit some remote healthcare monitoring. There's a lot of possibilities here and I think we’re just scratching the surface of the industry.

Tony Werner: With the combination of xFi and Xfinity Home, we think we’re in an ideal position to give our customers a simple one-stop solution for controlling their connected homes. With xFi, we take the mystery and guesswork out of our customers’ home WiFi networks, providing a real-time dashboard of what devices are on the network and how they are performing. With Xfinity Home, we’ve combined a powerful home-security solution with an increasingly integrated IoT hub. Through our “Works With Xfinity” program, our customers can control their Nest thermostats, August locks, Chamberlin garage door openers and many other popular IoT devices all from their Xfinity Home app. We are continuously bringing more partners onto the platform.

On the back end, we’re leveraging machine learning and our own homegrown rules engine to give our customers more pinpoint control over how their connected homes work.

In what ways is AI and machine learning guiding your technology strategy?
DH:
AI and ML already exist in our businesses in a number of different areas — both embedded in our products and services, and also as part of a number of new avenues we’re investigating. Not just customer facing, but for operational and engineering analytics use cases, too.

We’re using machine learning, for instance, to help us fine tune our understanding of how WiFi performs in our customer’s homes. RF modeling, and knowing those behaviors, can get us so far.

Adding in telemetry from our devices in the field, and ML in the back-end infrastructure, takes our insights to the next level. Additionally, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and the associated AI is already deployed as part of our voice search and personalization services. We see much more applicability here in the front lines of our business, where interactions across 24 million customers can be tailored much more accurately.

The key with AI and ML is telemetry and data management. To leverage these techniques, we need to be able to collect and analyze data. From that, we can affect changes back into our services and infrastructure — whether this is across the network, our service platforms or our care and operational support systems.

A big step in the right direction is to understand the art of the possible. We’re starting to innovate with partners internally. We’ve started with multiple trials, and some first deployments as well.

JR: Both AI and ML will play an increasing role across our technology stacks, from network management to troubleshooting to connecting customers with the content they want. I think as our networks become denser and more complex, adding more intelligence will help us mine data that matters to the overall success of the businesses.

What does the Internet of Things mean to your company?
KH:
From a product standpoint, some of the analytics that are built into the products, whether they’re visual analytics or voice analytics, are making the products more intelligent and more personal. The voice remote stuff is cool on the front end, but having contacts and predicting your next couple moves in the connected home are a big part of what you’ll see more and more of on the product roadmap.

From a technology operational network perspective, there are things we’re doing with software-defined networking and some of the intelligence we’re building in through software and quality of service and latency. And from an operational perspective, doing more and more with some of the artificial intelligence around quality of service, call-in rates and truck roll reduction and customer experience. It’s early days, but we’ve seen some very promising results.

JR: Whether it’s ensuring security and privacy, or connecting customers to specific capabilities, like health monitoring and wellness — the IoT scene, which our customers are bringing onto our networks by the handful, enables us to take a customer-centric approach. The key to the IoT and our industry is that it’s based on the common denominator of connectivity.

TW: We are committed to AI and machine learning, because we’ve seen firsthand how those technologies can make our products better and improve the customer experience. We use AI and machine learning algorithms today to advance and refine our Natural Language Processing platform, detect and fix incidents in our network, and help our customers find content they love. We’ve got a first-rate team of Ph.D.s working on these technologies day and night, and customers are already seeing that reflected in the products they use every day.

DH: Opportunity, more than anything. We’re seeing an explosion in connected devices, for sure, and the need for seamless onboarding, increased visibility, control, configuration and management. This is a key consideration as we think about how we develop our connectivity products and services.

Our customers rely on us to ensure their home network is secure, effective, and above all, is just there, available. The key will be which devices and services our customers bring into their homes. The IoT market remains fragmented, from a service and technology standards point of view (Sigfox, LoRa, NB-IoT, etc.). We’re experimenting with most of these.

We also see many new partnership possibilities opening up with both established and new players. The IoT landscape brings in very diverse industries — from lighting to kitchen goods, home security and other utilities. How these will play out, and where the value and roles lie, is still a work in progress.

Beyond residential, we’re seeing plenty of interest in the B2B segment. We have a number of trials with home builders and commercial real estate firms, where mutual opportunities exist. Whether it’s environmental sensors and control, WiFi coverage and management, broader sensor and device on-boarding, or management.

Beyond Speeds and Feeds and Attracting Talent

What matters when the task is securing the physical home, as well as the digital stuff in it?
TW:
One of our overarching product goals is to provide equipment and services that behave like a courteous guest in the home. Always there, always on, always connected and pleasing to the eye, but also always on the lookout. Our Xfinity Home product started out as a physical home security offering and quickly expanded into automation and smart home. A big part of that overall philosophy is to safeguard for both physical belongings and digital identities.

JR: It’s a one-word answer: Trust. We’re in a unique position, because we are poised to protect between the physical, and the digital. As IP-connected devices proliferate in the home and the business, we are becoming the trusted entity both for reliable service [and] as stewards of security.

DH: Trust is key here, of course — with an operational model that truly supports the offering. In both residential and B2B markets, local regulation and standards compliance will influence our interest and ability to enter this market. We also don’t see (for now) the same degree of demand as we see in other markets (notably North America) for these services.

What matters beyond speed and throughput/range and reach for some of the services headed our way — augmented reality, augmented discovery, VR, aging in place, automation, health care? Pick your favorite.
JR:
What matters is network latency, and overall visibility. Things like AR and health care and adjacent verticals — it’s all about interactivity, and the rapid translation of photons to electrons. Technologies like 802.11ax will help with the latency quest, which will be never-ending. And real-time, local visibility into how the network is running will help us to deliver a consistently high quality of experience across devices.

KH: We’re very excited about home health care … around enabling the aging population. Just based on demographics, there's a huge need and a huge opportunity, but within the network some of the artificial intelligence and some of the connectivity speeds but also some of the privacy components around HIPA-Acompliant information … are also important.

The infrastructure we’re putting into place, from a speed [perspective] is great, but privacy and security and latency, some of the real-time responses, I think will become even more important as you see more [need] for remote healthcare monitoring and more healthcare-centric solutions over time.

DH: Other network conditions start to come in to play here, like latency, jitter and packet loss.

We have equipment distributed across our footprint and in our network that allows us to closely monitor these parameters — to ensure that we know if it changes, why it changed, and what it means to the customer. This will become increasingly important. New standards, such as DOCSIS 3.1, also have targeted changes to improve the quality of service.

For sure, what we expect, and as discussed in context of IoT, is a continued growth in devices. Giving our customers visibility and control is key. Making sure their devices get the right priority, and remain secure, powered, live and connected on the network — as more and more devices connect and need proper “care and feeding” — becomes more critical to day-to-day life.

How has your reliance on the public cloud evolved over the last couple of years? Are you using more public or private cloud, and why does that matter?
KH:
It’s really a hybrid of all of the above, based on the use case. We’re doing a lot of things internally and some our own cloud capabilities with infrastructure-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service and some of the things we’re doing around virtualization. We also use third-party clouds where it makes sense, based on their skill sets and capabilities. And from a managed service perspective, we have some product and service offerings leveraging cloud-based components. But now that you’ve adopted this hybrid cloud environment, it’s now about how do you optimize it for performance and cost and security — that’s probably the next frontier.

JR: We rely on both — private and public. Both are good at different things, and the crux of it is taking advantage of what they’re good at. For instance, the public cloud is good for things that need velocity — prototyping, instantaneous scaling. The private cloud is more for things that are in production, which need to be highly secure. A good example is cloud DVR. Cloud DVR is obviously going to need a lot of cloud infrastructure, but it’s also well understood, with well-defined metrics. Because you know how it’s going to perform, it’s just going to be more cost effective to do on a private cloud.

What is the right balance of engineering talent you need these days, and how do you attract it?
TW:
We do a lot of recruiting, especially when we’re speaking at nontraditional industry events. The right balance is a tricky task — we still need RF engineers, because we still operate a lot of RF. We still need infrastructure experts, because we operate a significant infrastructure. In general, though, it’s software, systems and architectural engineering talent that we seek. We’ve made significant strides in how we attract that talent, primarily by making sure that Comcast is a great environment for developers and innovators to come work, but we can always do more.

JW: We’re finding less need for HFC talent every day, in part because you still have a lot in the organization, so demands are kind of in the decline. Five to 10 years ago, it was hard finding network skills. The battle for high-speed data is over. Cable has won. And most people in professional areas see that, so people with networking skills who have interest in being in the internet business are finding us a lot more than ever before.

The area of challenge is on the software side. That has been tougher. I guess the good news is that being near New York doesn’t make for the most inexpensive job market, but people with those skills in New York are definitely not working for dot-com companies. At least I’m not competing for that talent. We’ve been plucking millennials straight out of college and teaching them ourselves and hoping that they don't leave too quickly. But we seem to be doing OK keeping the folks we have sort of home grown.

KH: Investing in our people and our talent is a top priority at Cox in both product and technology, and training and skill sets. [In early October] my team worked on an operating model of the future for the team, but software-enabled everything is critical, virtualization is critical, cybersecurity skills are paramount.

We bring in talent through recruiting and through our third-party vendors and we also have a very robust co-op and intern program, and interns from leading schools like Georgia Tech right here in Atlanta. Tulsa is one of our markets and they have one of the top cybersecurity schools in the country. We’re bringing in interns and co-ops and recruits from these feeder schools and also bringing in talent with a lot of experience, as well, from some of these new trending areas, like mobility, IP, cybersecurity, etc.

DH: Our move away from closed vendor ecosystems to open, embedded software development — either directly ourselves or with partners — means we must ensure that we have the right talent on board. It’s these engineers who drive our business forward.

Over the last 12 months, we have brought our technology group together across Europe, which gives a truly global opportunity for our engineers and developers to build products and services — all the way from the U.K., Germany and Switzerland, through to Eastern Europe, and across to Latin American and the Caribbean. Whether it’s fixed or mobile access, Internet, TV and video, or a full suite of B2B services. That’s a pretty rare opportunity.

JR: The right balance is the technologist who has a degree of nimbleness between hardware and software, and tends to think about things from a systems perspective. We’ve been surprised to see talent coming to our Denver engineering groups from Silicon Valley. The recurring themes appear to be both quality of life, and cost of living. I think you’ll see more and more evidence that shows a talent shift in our collective direction, and that’s really gratifying.