While industry giants flitted about this week’s Consumer Electronics Show with talk about what might be, what will be and what could be in television’s next era, a less flamboyant group quietly took a giant step forward in facilitating that next era.
Beyond Broadband Technology, a mixture of operators, designers and some standards developers, released a code to build chips with downloadable security capabilities, also more commonly known as a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS).
"We are building boxes now; I’ve actually physically seen the boards and boxes from two manufacturers (one of which is RL Drake)," said Bill Bauer, BBT’s CEO when he’s not busy as president-CEO of WinDBreak Cable and Intertech Corp.
These first boxes will help consumers cross the bridge into an all-digital world by meeting FCC demands for retail set-top availability. While it seemed logical that BBT would be at CES trying to drum up business and partners, that wasn’t necessarily the case, said Bauer. The group already has a primo manufacturing partner, Drake, which "stepped up to the table and helped us to do the fundamental design. In return for that, they obviously get to be first into the market," he said.
Chips are being built in STMicroelectronics‘ facilities in Grenoble, France, and BBT now has a reference design for any manufacturer that wants to get involved in the process, Bauer said. Since BBT is banking on standardization, it’s also making sure that others within the television process, from CE manufacturers to telcos, will climb on board with the design. Walking the straight and narrow "We’re in a perilous position. We have giants on both sides and need to walk right down through the middle of them," he said. "We’re prepared for that, and we know that’s what we need to do to make sure this moves into a recognized open standard."
Standardization can be a loooonnnngggg process.
"It takes time (and) relationship building, being willing to sit down and listen to what both sides of the fence want to talk about," Bauer said. "The whole thing is going to be quite a challenge. We’re actually spinning silicon; we’ve accomplished a major amount of work in a very short period of time. We have buy-in from the manufacturers; buy-in from the chip fab; the code is finished, written, and they started spinning silicon."
All that’s needed now, he said, is for a market shift to happen before February 2009 when broadcasters transition from analog to digital.
"The industry is in a holding pattern. They don’t want to be left with only a proprietary choice; they want an open standard, and when an open standard hits, it’s going to be huge," he said.
That’s why Bauer is on CableLabs‘ board of directors and why BBT deals directly with NCTC, NCTA, ACA and is in touch with ATIS, to throw out some alphabet soup without the broth.
"We keep all of them informed," he said.
The public is another matter. Certainly the consumer media got a taste of what’s on the horizon this week as Comcast, Panasonic and even CableLabs hyped two-way interactive TV with tru2way announcements that supplant OpenCable. Usually buttoned-down Comcast Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts added to the circus atmosphere with a keynote address that included an appearance by semi-celebrity Ryan Seacrest and a "musical number" from HBO‘s Flight of the Conchords.
"I believe Comcast is the company you will want to partner with to give consumers what they really want – whether you create or produce content, build consumer electronic equipment, sell it at retail, operate an internet site or write software," Roberts said in his keynote. "At future CES shows, you’re going to see cable everywhere – because we’re leading the way into a converged, personalized world."
That, said Bauer, was an impressive stage performance, but "there’s a difference here between what Brian says he’s going to do and what we’re doing. We’re really about making this happen, where they’re all about talking about what they’re going to do."
– Jim Barthold