MCNS(Multimedia Cable Network System Partners Ltd.) is made up of four large cable companies: Comcast Cable Communications, Inc., Cox Communications,Tele-Communications, Inc. and Time Warner Cable. With approximately 80% of the US cable market, this group is in a strong position to create a de facto standard, should they bring something to market. This group works with IEEE 802.14, but will create their own standards if IEEE is either not fast enough or MCNS is unhappy with the IEEE standard. If MCNS comes up with a standard first, they will submit it to the ITU for approval. If the ITU does not approve it, or declares it an open standard, they will bring it to the US market and try to force a de facto standard. This approach is problematic. Attempting to force a proprietary standard with 80% of the US market may backfire as 80% of US market share may not be enough to perpetuate a global de facto standard. The standard may also be technically poor. For example, in the rush to provide data services to cable customers, early proposals for cable modems included customers receiving data over a cable line, but transmitting data over a phone line. It is not inconceivable that the industry could force a poor standard on the market. Another problem with this MCNS effort is their disdain for open standards. The Internet, which will be the major initial focus for cable modems, thrives in an environment of open standards. In addition, failure to open the standards process may fail to create the critical mass in the market and the necessary network externality to make the rollout of cable modems a success. The MCNS effort is know as DOCIS (Data Over Cable Interface Specification), and the working group includes other cable system operators in addition to the four large operators behind MCNS. The group announced that they had a workable specification(which is not yet a standard) at the end of 1996, although non-standard, non- interoperable modems are still being used and manufactured. Information on this effort is available at www.cablelabs.com/PR/96cable_spec and www.cablemodem.com/mcnsfaq.html
The SCTE (Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers) is working with MCNS and IEEE 802.14 in developing the standards. MCNS must submit its standard to the ITU through the SCTE, because MCNS is not recognized by the ITU as a standards setting organization. According to the Com21 a California based ATM networking company. As a company with a vested interest in the cable modem standards effort, they participate in both the IEEE efforts and the SCTE efforts. Com21’s participation in the standards process is notable for two reasons. First, they are participating to some degree in virtually all the major cable modem standardization efforts. Second, they are committed to open standards. These two points demonstrate a clear understanding of the standards process. No matter what standard ends up prevailing, Com21 will likely have had a hand in creating it. Their commitment to openness shows that even as a competitor in the cable modem market, Com21 understands that open standards create opportunities for everyone to make money in the cable modem market.
In addition to Com21, there are a number of other companies which manufacture cable modem products. Many of these organizations have people involved in the standardization effort. For example, the vice chair of IEEE 802.14 is John Eng from Digital, who manufactures cable modems. Some of these other companies are ADC, General Instrument, Hewlett Packard, Bay Networks and Motorola. Some of these companies have indicated a willingness to manufacture cable modems in accordance with the DOCIS specification. For a list of these companies, see rpcp.mit.edu/~gingold/cable/#Manufacturers.
There are a few other standards organizations working directly in the cable modem
area, but the impact of these other organizations on the cable modem standards process to date
seems to be negligible. Links to their activities can be found at www.catv.org/modem/standards which is
also an excellent resource for all kinds of information about cable modem activities.
MCNS and DOCIS have what they claim is a workable specification, but it remains to be seen if this specification will become either an official or de facto standard. Some parts of their specification conform to existing standards for ethernet, and ITU standards for video transmission, which should help the specification gain acceptance. MCNS’ large market presence will also help them as they attempt to turn their specification into an accepted industry standard. However, even with all these advantages, the IEEE effort continues. Based on the technical character of the IEEE it is a good bet that their standard will be technologically complete, well thought out, and extensible. The cable modems currently manufactured by Digital conform to IEEE protocols. An IEEE standard would also be an open standard, which is far more simpatico with the Internet environment, the primary use for cable modems.
The cable modem standards effort in many ways exemplifies common problems with information technology standards setting in the United States. Essentially, the traditional standards process has not been moving fast enough for the cable industry, who is obviously anxious to bring products to the market. The idea behind the cable modem is sound. The explosive popularity of the Internet, increased processing power of home computers, and increasing multimedia and interactive content of the web all indicate a definite need for faster access to the Internet. Using existing cable networks and wire to deliver this access without interrupting existing service is an excellent idea. In fact, much of the test marketing of cable modems has been successful. Cable modems are not widely available due to a lack of standards. Without an accepted standard, it does not make sense to make the investment necessary to provide cable modem services, since early methods may turn out to be incompatible with industry standards which may be set later. In order for companies to make the investment in providing this service, they must know that they are investing in protocols and infrastructure which will be supported by industry in the future, and not turn out to be technological white elephants.
While the viability of the cable modem market may still be in question, early signs
point to the likelihood of success when the service becomes widely available. Wide availability
of cable modems will never happen without a standard, and the major participants in the
business are aware of this fact. Regardless of whose standard prevails, any standard is better
than no standard at all. Until a standard is established and accepted, cable companies will not
be able to take advantage of this new market.