The first of the two-day Winter Educational Conference of the National Cable Television Cooperative in Phoenix included three digital-heavy sessions and breaks for the more than 300 independent cable operators attending to visit the tabletop displays of some 50 vendors.

Among those showing products was R.L. Drake, the primary manufacturer of a set-top box designed by Beyond Broadband Technologies, a partnership of three independent operators: Bill Bauer, president and CEO of WinDBreak Cable; Ben Hooks, chairman of Buford Media Group; and Tony Swain, president and CEO of TeleMedia Broadband.

The most visible member of this triumvirate has been Bauer, who said in an afternoon session that the project’s initial vision to build a low-cost, digital set-top box migrated into the headend, then into MPEG-4 and then into downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) technology.

Bauer said he passed a milestone on Feb. 11 when he completed a beta test of the system at the CableLabs Winter Conference. As for signs of shifting into a production cycle, he said that his office had received on Monday the first batch of the "secure micro," the decryption chip from BBT partner and semiconductor giant STMicroelectronics.

"We’re looking at a 60-million set-top market – and that doesn’t even include tier 1 operators," Bauer said. While production likely would encompass additional manufacturers to scale in the millions, Bauer underscored the role of Drake. "They have worked so hard for this," he said.

In addition to the Drake HDDS24 set-top, the small-operator digital system includes a Drake SCT 2×4 satellite receiver, multiplexer and QAM modulator; an out-of-band (OOB) modulator also from Drake; a headend controller from InterTECH and programming from Avail Media.

The DCAS-enabled set-top, which passed FCC muster in January 2007 as an alternative to boxes using CableCards, accrued a host of additional features in its development cycle that pushed up its price into the $240 range. An operator of several systems with as few as 100 subscribers, Bauer is hopeful that his reference design will follow the downward price trajectory of the DOCSIS modem and insists that low-cost digital technology remains his objective.

"It has to be affordable in one of my systems," he said. Other approaches The BBT/Drake approach competes against those from several other entrants represented at the Phoenix event, as well as incumbents Motorola and the Comcast Media Center.

Motorola and CMC reps were on hand to elaborate on their multi-year agreement, announced on Monday, "to develop and support the next generation of equipment and content authorization for CMC’s HITs Quantum affiliates."

CMC Senior Director of Engineering and Product Development James Capps discussed expanded digital and interactive content and emphasized the value of an integrated solution and the need to "leverage existing equipment."

Others saw it differently. "We overbuilt and removed Motorola," said Transparent Video Systems Founder and CEO Norman Gillaspie, regarding the deployment of his Challenger system with Pennsylvania-based Coaxial Cable TV.

"No more single suppliers," said Evolution Canada CTO Brent Smith. "That has got to change."

Acting an integrator of headend, conditional access and customer premises equipment (CPE) devices, Evolution figured in an earlier presentation by Dave Curtin, COO of Houston-based TV Max, which partnered with Evolution, Scopus and Conax to create a DVB system aimed at "survival, growth and prosperity." Small and large operators The question of survival, hardly theoretical for some NCTC members, has focused attention on all digital, displacing bandwidth management alternatives that large MSOs are considering, if not embracing, such as switched digital video (SDV).

Massillon Cable TV President Robert Gessner offered an analytic matrix of options that led him to the conclusion that analog elimination (either with or without FCC waiver) offered the biggest and most certain bang for a fixed amount of bucks and would keep him out of what he called the "CPE jungle."

One urgent, CPE-related to-do yet remains. "What we really need is a converter that will pass digital … with no advanced services," Gessner said.

As it happens, Evolution was on hand with a low-cost, no-frills digital-to-analog adapter (DTA) clearly designed to avoid FCC trip-wires. A development reminiscent of a similar initiative by Pace Micro Technology several years ago, this DTA launch may have the timing right, not only for NCTC but also for the industry at large.

Another potential overlap with large MSO territory came from GoBackTV President and CEO David Baran. Although GoBack’s CMTS bypass technology fits into the small operator framework, Baran described one approach being discussed by video and data architects across the industry: leverage processing in the edge QAM modulators, and reserve the core to scheduling and upstream traffic.

Leaving aside IPTV, the road to all digital video for most cable operators is going to come down to integrating multiple components. In the case of San Bruno Municipal Cable TV, as Director Tenzin Gyaltsen described it, apart from the legal counsel, it was a matter of working with Motorola and Pace set tops, converting from Motorola’s NAS to NAS-RAC, and deploying EGT for encoding and RGB Networks for edge upconversion, C-COR for digital ad insertion and Triveni Digital for EAS.

– Jonathan Tombes

The Daily

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