Tag Archives: ces2017

Broadband capacity crunch looms as 4K adoption accelerates

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Broadband hits the video wall.

On current trends, at least 25 million U.S. consumers will be watching ultra high definition video programming via 4K television sets within two years. That’s a very rough estimate, but if it’s off, it’s probably low. But let’s run with it for the moment.

It means that at least 20% of U.S. homes will be looking for 4K-quality video programming. Satellite is a natural source for it and cable companies will try to push some through as well. But much of the new, original programming that’ll be available will be produced by over-the-top video platforms like Netflix or Amazon, and consumers will want to watch that too.

Right now, it takes a steady, 15 Mbps streaming connection to watch 4K video via the Internet, and there’s no immediate prospect of minimum speeds dropping significantly.

That has big implications for the broadband business. Watching 4K via DSL will be impossible for most subscribers and very difficult for the rest, and you can forget about trying to do it via any kind of affordable wireless connection. Cable modem service can deliver enough speed to a home, but there’s a backhaul bottleneck that will limit the bandwidth that’s available on an aggregate, neighborhood basis. If a fifth of the subscribers on a 500-home node are watching one 4K stream each, you’ll need a gigabit and a half of steady backhaul, and that’s out of the reach of many, if not most, cable systems. Depending on design and provisioning, fiber networks can have similar capacity constraints.

The fall back excuse that Internet service providers – cable, telco and all flavors of wireless – trot out when defending poorly performing systems or pressed about upgrade plans and the need for competition is no one actually needs that much bandwidth. Even if it was a valid argument in the past, the adoption rate of 4K televisions sets and service is quickly rendering it completely false.

4K TV sales growing, with 20% U.S. market share in sight

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About three-quarters of all large screen televisions – those more than 50 inches – that were sold last year in the U.S. (and worldwide) were 4K, ultra-high definition (UHD) sets, according to Paul Gagnon, the director of tv sets research for IHS Markit. By 2018, all but 100% of big screens sold will be 4K-capable. In raw numbers, the Consumer Technology Association – the trade association for the U.S. consumer electronics industry – estimates that more than 80 million 4K sets will be sold worldwide this year, and next year the total will be in the 100 million unit range.

Adding CTA’s numbers up, by the end of 2018, there will be something like 300 million 4K television sets in homes and business worldwide. We don’t have sales figures for 2016 yet, but in 2015 the U.S. accounted for about 20% of 4K sales. That share appears to be dropping, though. According to CTA, 4K sales in China have been accelerating and account for the largest chunk worldwide. But even if you discount the U.S. share by half – make it 10% – we’re still looking at something like an addressable universe of 30 million 4K sets.

If you make another back-of-the-envelope cut and say that about a fifth of those – 5 or 6 million – are used in commercial establishments or for industrial purposes, then the ballpark estimate is that within two years, 20% of U.S. homes will have 4K UHD sets.

That’s good news for the consumer electronics industry, which has seen falling television sales. CTA estimates that worldwide TV sales have slipped by about 20 million units since 2014 and the dollar value is dropping even faster, at more than 10% per year. A quantum jump in picture quality will be a good reason for consumers to replace HDTV sets that are still working just fine.

Santa Cruz tech rolls out at CES

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Plantronic’s Esther Yoon demos the Backbeat Fit at CES.

Two Santa Cruz companies were among the thousands of exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show, which wrapped up in Las Vegas last weekend – one industry veteran, Plantronics, and one start up, Future Motion, which is just hitting its stride. Both were on hand at Pepcom’s media showcase.

Future Motion introduced the Onewheel+, the latest version of a motorised balance beam skateboard with, naturally, just one wheel. It has two horsepower electric motor and can hit speeds of 19 miles per hour. It’s designed to be easier to ride than version 1.0, and comes with a smart phone app that’ll let you set it up the way you like it – gentle or go for broke.

“It feels like you’re snowboarding on powder”, said CEO Kyle Doerksen. The product has found its audience, he said. Initially, it was uphill work explaining what the Onewheel is all about. Now that it’s out there, people have a point of reference and can understand the features.


CES spotlight on Onewheel+.

Everything except manufacturing – design, sales and marketing, customer – happens at Future Motion’s headquarters in the Wrigley building in Santa Cruz. The product is made in San Jose.

Plantronics showcased two new wireless headsets, the Backbeat Fit and the Backbeat Pro 2. The Pro 2 is a wireless over-the-ears headset – high quality audio with noise cancelling technology, plus mics for phone functionality.

The Fit was designed with Santa Cruz in mind. It’s a flexible, rubbery headset that’s waterproof and designed to stay in your ears even if you a do backflip. Or a flip in some other direction – handy for surfing. The earpieces don’t completely your ear, so if you want wear it while you’re out running, you can still cars and whatever else is around you.

A third local company, Scotts Valley-based Pearl Automation, was also represented. CEO and co-founder Bryson Gardener appeared on a panel, speaking about life hacks for tech-centric families. Pearl makes an aftermarket back up camera for cars.

Broadband needs to be faster, because 4K isn’t getting slower

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But the test pattern is marvelous.

The speed required to deliver 4K video via the Internet is still 15 Mbps. That was the consensus at CES two years ago, and it is still the minimum speed that Amazon recommends for its 4K video streams, according to B A Winston, the global head of video playback and delivery for Amazon Video.

He was on a 4K panel at CES last week, and said that Amazon’s challenge is delivering content over unreliable networks – more bits means more congestion – and working within the limits of whatever connectivity and technology consumers bring to the table. “Our goal from a consumer perspective is it should not matter to them”, he said.

Amazon started streaming, and producing, 4K content two years ago, and now most of its content is shot in that format. The number of subscribers viewing those streams has tripled over the past year.

Winston said that they have to consider the device a viewer is using, the viewing software on that device and their own delivery system in order “to figure out exactly what is the best optimum path to deliver to consumers over that device”.

It doesn’t always work. The quality of online streams will dial down to match the connection, but past a certain point, that means dropping down to a lower quality format. That’s an opportunity for studios that release titles on disc, said Ron Sanders, the president of worldwide home entertainment distribution for Warner Brothers, who was also on the panel.

Figuring out the optimum path includes dealing with quality of service issues, such as network congestion or jitter, that crop up. There’s a limit, though. Amazon and other online video platforms will do what they can, but if your device doesn’t have a connection that will move enough bits quickly enough – 15 million of them every second – then you won’t get a 4K stream in real time.

Republican congressmen plan their own kind of telecoms policy activism

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“Over the last several years, what we’ve seen has been lot of reaction in congress, reacting to things. What I think we’re going to see now more is planning”, said Bob Latta, a republican representative from Ohio, who holds a key telecoms committee portfolio in Washington, D.C. He was on a four-congressman panel at CES, talking about the reconfigured Federal Communications Commission. It will begin the Trump administration with a republican majority and, Latta expects, commissioner Ajit Pai installed as chairman.

Freeing up more spectrum for wireless Internet access, circling back on set top box rules and revisiting rules made during the Obama administration – such as the network neutrality decision that re-classified broadband as a common carrier service – are high on the republican telecoms agenda for the coming year.

Latta said that he favors a light-touch regulatory approach and the FCC will be taking a different direction. Net neutrality, as currently defined, is the wrong direction, he said.

California representative Darrell Issa, a San Diego republican, said that outgoing chairman Tom Wheeler overreached. New set top box rules floated by Wheeler and then quickly withdrawn after the election tried to do much. There should be new rules, Issa said, but the objective should be limited to getting rid of the 1990s vintage cable cards – limited and clunky hardware interfaces that never found a market – and simply giving consumers a way of connecting directly to the digital streams delivered by cable companies, without the complicated and detailed review process proposed by Wheeler.

Issa said that congress needs to take a hard look at how spectrum is allocated for wireless broadband service, particularly the balance between licensed and unlicensed bands…

“Today, more data goes through [WiFi] than, in fact, goes through cellular. How much spectrum we have in our WiFi? A fraction of what just one carrier owns in the way of cellular. So the reality is that one of the greatest failures in the world is, in fact, selling spectrum, and one of the greatest successes in the world is sharing spectrum”.

Latta also put a high priority on finding more spectrum. He said that even though 95% of the U.S. might have access to wireless broadband, the remaining 5% need to be served too.

Spend on broadband not crumbling concrete, says California congressman

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Issa on home turf.

Representative Darrell Issa (R – San Diego) embraced Donald Trump’s plan to pump a lot of federal money into infrastructure during a CES panel discussion in Las Vegas this weekend, and broadband is at the top of his shopping list. If the federal government is going to spend a trillion dollars again, Issa thinks it should be forward looking projects that get funded, and not repair jobs left over from the last century.

The problem with the Obama administration’s stimulus program, Issa said, was that it focused on fixing things like crumbling bridges that state and local governments ignored, until the federal government asked for shovel ready projects

What’s shovel ready right now is the smart highway. What’s shovel ready right now is connecting our world better and faster, in which the federal government can participate in that – in spectrum allocation, in some dollars, but also in systems that help that get rolled out faster. The federal government, in a sense, has an exclusive license on the Interstate systems. We can preempt everything to make things happen better, quicker, faster, and if we spend and invest a trillion dollars in partnerships, in that, then suddenly we have a much more connected world…

The investment this time is different. It’s not about a crumbling piece of concrete that a city or county or state should have maintained. It’s about where does the federal government take us to the next level, so that our country is, in fact, headed in a way that the superhighway’s of 70 years ago made us competitive, now the superhighway is, if you will, electronic.

Issa was preaching to the choir at CES. Before running for congress, he was CEO of a tech company and served as chair of the Consumer Electronics Association – now the Consumer Technology Association, so his enthusiasm for broadband spending comes naturally. It faces two hurdles, though. Trump’s stated infrastructure priority is building “the roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways of tomorrow” – no mention of broadband – and there’s deep skepticism about big spending programs of any kind among Issa’s fellow republicans.

Limits of self driving cars will be drawn by mobile carriers

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Continental’s 5G roadmap.

When fully autonomous vehicles arrive depends on where you want to be driven. If there’s a low latency, high speed mobile network available – likely, a 5G network – then you’ll be able to take a nap in the back seat. If connectivity isn’t there or isn’t up to the necessary standard, then you’ll have to sit behind the wheel and be ready to take control on short notice.

That’s my takeaway from a briefing at CES yesterday by [Continental, an automotive technology company](). Among other things, it makes data processing and communications systems for major carmakers. One of the challenges to get to the point where machines can be given full responsibility for driving people safely and efficiently is delivering sufficient information to them quickly enough.

On board sensors are the primary source of data. But they’re also the last line of defence. Their range is limited to somewhere between 100 meters and 300 meters – call it something like a city block. Any additional information will have to be gathered via wireless communications. And there’s a lot of it: weather, traffic signals, position and intent of other vehicles and more. With all of that information available quickly enough, cars can drive themselves, Continental believes.

The big hurdle is network latency. Continental reps said that current 4G networks typically have 100 milliseconds of latency, which is too much of a lag for safety related information. Experiments on 4G systems in Germany have brought that down to 20 milliseconds, which is fast enough, but as a practical matter it’ll take a general upgrade to 5G standards – whatever those turn out to be – to get that kind of performance on a generally available, commercial basis.

The timeline for 5G deployment and the development of cars that capable of fully autonomous operation under a given set of conditions is about the same: [the middle of the next decade](). As the technology develops, those conditions will encompass more and more places. But the ultimate limit will be mobile network availability and performance.

Key congressman says Pai will be next FCC chair

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Speaking at CES today, representative Bob Latta (R – Ohio) – a major player in congressional telecoms policy – said he’s looking forward to working proactively with the new administration and, particularly, the new Federal Communications Commission, which will be led by Ajit Pai.

“You look at the FCC and the change there, commissioner Pai will be the new chairman of the FCC”, he said.

Update: afterwards, Latta confirmed that he thinks it’s likely that Pai will be the next FCC chair, probably on a permanent basis, and with all due regard for the principal that “he who looks into a crystal ball will eat ground glass for lunch”.

As the FCC’s senior republican, Pai is nominally first in line for the interim job.

Simpler hubs evolve as smart home ecosystem gets more complex

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Doesn’t look complicated.

Smart home hubs made a bit of a comeback at CES this year, with several companies showing second generation products. One company, Wink, leaned in to the self install market with a relatively inexpensive new device that’s intended to be simple and seamless to set up, and incorporates lesson learned from its first generation. Another company, Carrier, rebranded an existing hub as “Cor” and leveraged its existing distribution channel to go after the big system sale end of the market.

The Wink Hub 2 was showcased at the Pepcom press event at CES. It has a $99 price tag and is intended to just work, with automatic device pairing and a smart phone app as the sole controller – no buttons on the device, no web interface. To the extent possible, it’s intended to be network and protocol-agnostic. It’ll connect to Wink’s servers, which is where the smart phone app gets a lot of its smarts, via ethernet or WiFi, and talk to devices via Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth and a couple of proprietary protocols. Security was also upgraded.

Carrier had the Cor on display at the Showstoppers CES media showcase. It’s intended to be the center of a professionally integrated network of devices. It’s compatible with standard Z-Wave products, which is the only wireless protocol it supports. The Cor is also controlled via a smart app with a cloud-based back end. It’s sold and installed by Carrier’s network of dealers. An installed starter kit – with the hub, security and water sensors and light controls – costs in the $700 range. About 1,000 units have been installed since the Cor was launched last summer.

CES was crammed with home automation devices this year. Many are one-trick ponies with separate smart phone apps and/or web interfaces, which will be increasingly cumbersome and confusing as consumers increasingly install the technology in their homes. Third party hubs might have found a winning selling proposition: unified set up and control on a simple app backed up by smart and secure servers.

FCC commissioners play it safe and loose at CES

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There was an elephant in the packed CES meeting room where three Federal Communications Commissioners spoke yesterday, and no one noticed him. The session, moderated by a deferential lobbyist from the show’s producer, the Consumer Technology Association, ran its full allotted half hour, with no mention of Donald Trump, who will be setting the course for federal telecoms policy when he chooses a new FCC chair – perhaps one of the current republican commissioners, perhaps not.

There was also no mention of Jessica Rosenworcel, who was renominated to the FCC by Barack Obama earlier this week. She can’t resume her seat, though, until and unless the U.S. senate confirms her.

While taking easy swings at softball questions (did you learn anything by travelling around the country?), republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, and democrat Mignon Clyburn gingerly staked out vague policy positions for the coming year.

O’Rielly riffed on the limits of FCC authority, saying – not for the first time – that the commission can’t be doing things that congress hasn’t specifically told it to do. Things like setting cybersecurity rules, which he spoke about yesterday, or reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service, which he’s been adamant about in the past. He said that less regulation will allow telecoms companies to “focus on customers and consumers and business models rather than worrying about the FCC”.

Pai likewise talked about reducing barriers for entrepreneurs, and encouraging investment in low income areas. “We really need to give job creators the maximum incentive possible”, he said.

Clyburn spoke up in favor of regulation, including specific common carrier status for broadband. She also said that local governments have a role to play in setting wireless policy and “we need to make sure they’re part of the 5G conversation”.

On the whole, the conversation was collegial and guarded. There was one revealing – and good natured – moment when O’Rielly said he was wholeheartedly looking forward to starting over with a new commission. Clyburn thought he was a little too happy. “You’re smiling way too much”, she said as she turned and grinned at the audience. “He says hallelujah, and starts over”.