Like an avalanche beginning to rumble down a mountain, the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) is poised to gain thunderous momentum this year. “This is the year of OCAP for us,” Time Warner Cable Chief Technology Officer Mike LaJoie says. “You’re actually going to start seeing this stuff hit the market in a big way in our systems. We’re working closely with consumer electronics companies, and hopefully they’ll come at this in a big way, too.” OCAP, which was developed by cable operators and CableLabs, is a stack of software that resides between applications and the operating system within a consumer electronics device such as a set-top box or OCAP-compliant TV set. Long a work in progress, OCAP falls within the broader OpenCable initiative, which CableLabs launched in 1997 to promote the deployment of interactive services over cable. OpenCable efforts have ranged beyond OCAP and its several extensions to encompass specifications that advance CableLabs’ stated goals of defining next-generation digital consumer devices, encouraging supplier competition and creating a retail hardware platform. (For more on OpenCable specifications, see sidebar on page 30.) The benefits of an OpenCable world include the ability to bring new products and services to customers in a user-friendly, two-way environment. If a customer buys an OCAP-enabled TV set in one cable market but moves to another, for instance, that device—and applications such as electronic program guides (EPGs)—should work automatically in the new cable market. That assumes, of course, a conditional access (CA) solution that enables these devices to move with their owners. Down the road, OCAP will also enable more advanced bidirectional devices and applications, such as allowing secure computers access to multi-channel video. “What OCAP does is it creates a platform in which the imagination can kick in,” says Wayne Davis, Charter Communications’ EVP Engineering and CTO. “What kinds of applications may be down the road, but right how the biggest thing for us is to get the platform in with the end-to-end components related to that.” Timing, tests and buildout In January, cable’s top executives outlined their OCAP deployment plans for this year and the coming years during at press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (See sidebar.) With the industry now committed to voluntary benchmarks of completing the installation of OCAP in most systems (those serving 5,000 or more subscribers over an activated 750MHz plant) by July 1, 2009, there’s plenty of motivation to get moving. Don Dulchinos, CableLabs’ senior vice president of advanced platforms and services, says the two major elements of OCAP are software upgrades at the headends and porting applications. Whether a cable operator is running Scientific-Atlanta’s Digital Network Control System (DNCS) or Motorola’s Digital Addressable Controller (DAC), it will need the headend software upgraded to enable OCAP. Time Warner Cable is testing a limited version of OCAP in its Gastonia, NC, division, which is running S-A’s DNCS 4.0 version. The purpose of the trial is see how Samsung’s OCAP-compliant high definition TV (HDTV) set works with a headend in a real-world environment. “This version of the OCAP stack is isn’t intended for production use,” TWC’s Mike LaJoie says. “It’s for testing purposes only, and it’s running the complete guide and exercising all of the signaling characteristics of the headend gear. There are some specific things you need to have in place to signal and communicate with the OCAP stack, the most important being the OCAP carousel.” The OCAP carousel provides signaling interfaces for applications and carousel delivery by using a both in-band and out-of-band signaling in the cable system. Applications are generally delivered real-time over an in-band data carousel and can be bound to the content of a particular video service, such as weather information. Cox Communication’s Craig Smithpeters, manager, advanced technology and standards, says carousels have generally been used in-band to date, but Cox expects out-of-band use to increase. Carousel work is ongoing at Time Warner. “We’re still banging away on it (the OCAP carousel), and so far it has worked quite well,” LaJoie says. “For the most part, it’s (the OCAP upgrade) the signaling carousel on the DNCS. Also, as you start exercising other aspects of the guide, you need to be able to update the guide data by making sure the entitlement messages are getting through.” According to Cox’s Smithpeters, a carousel is the same as a broadcast file system. It’s called a “carousel” because it repeatedly broadcasts a file system in a portion of a MPEG-2 program stream. If a client misses a file, it simply waits for it to “come around” again on the carousel. Object carousels generally reside in equipment racks near the DAC or DNCS, but because they’re Internet protocol (IP)-based, a carousel could reside elsewhere, and Smithpeters says a more distributed deployment architecture is a possibility in the future. Comcast is using an object carousel over the DOCSIS set-top gateway (DSG) protocol to deliver applications to OCAP devices on its network. This enables Comcast to use a more centralized architecture that will help it more rapidly extend OCAP deployments to additional systems. Comcast’s plan is to leverage national infrastructure platforms that are already in place, specifically the Comcast National Backbone Network. This simplifies deployment logistics and therefore cuts the time required for deployment. It also reduces remote management functionality requirements. The architecture supports a distributed deployment model, and Comcast says it is likely to distribute resources as needed to scale over time. On Ramp to OCAP Cox’s field trials this year will feature applications such as weather, movies, email, bill paying, bill viewing and caller ID, among others. Cox will be using its On Ramp application, which is a subset of Java application program interfaces (APIs), instead of a fuller version of OCAP. Chris Bowick, Cox’s CTO, says Cox will have some OCAP trials later this year. “It’s (OCAP) a very complicated topic, and it’s not just new set-top boxes and new software on set-top boxes,” he says. “From a systems perspective, you have the addressable controller and the DSG that will be used in OCAP deployments for the two-way communications instead of the proprietary S-A and Motorola approaches we have today.” Cox plans on using On Ramp to work backward to the legacy set-top boxes that are currently deployed in customers’ homes. Cox and Comcast purchased the On Ramp technology together when they bought Liberate’s North American assets, but Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter say their focus is currently on OCAP. While it’s an achievement to have OCAP deployed, it doesn’t do much good unless applications are ported to it. CableLabs’ Dulchinos says he expects the bulk of EPG and video on demand (VOD) applications to be ported this year before deployments start to take place. “If the application was already written in Java (the basis for OCAP), the job is easier,” Cox’s Smithpeters says. “If it’s not, as is usually the case, it’s more work. The first place to start is the existing specifications and requirements for the existing application. These are used to define the behavior and `look and feel’ for the application. In this case, the port is really a rewrite of the application based on the current application’s functionality.” According to Dr. Paul Liao, Panasonic’s chief technical officer in North America, one of the challenges for implementing OCAP is headends that use different vendors for VOD. One key piece to the OCAP headend puzzle is integrated application servers for program guides, VOD or interactive applications such as games or sports tickers. DCAS on tap Cable operators are also working hand-in-hand on a new downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) to replace CableCARDs as they rollout OCAP. An early implementation of OpenCable and formerly known as point-of-deployment (POD) modules, CableCARDs are costly and currently only uni-directional: CableCARD-equipped TV sets can only receive information from the cable headend and can’t send return signals for services such as VOD or pay-per-view. “In the current world, you have CableCARDs that are deployed, and when the customer plugs that in, they have to pick up the phone and call cable operator to get that to work,” CableLabs’ Dulchinos says. “In a two-way world, that’s all automated and won’t need to happen anymore, but the messaging for that needs provisioning.” Originally, the Federal Communications Commission gave the cable industry until July 1 of this year to separate security from its cable devices, but the National Cable & Telecommunications Association received a one-year extension to finish testing DCAS. Samsung was the first manufacturer to sign a license with CableLabs for DCAS, and in January LG Electronics became the second. Cox’s Bowick says his company, Time Warner Cable and Comcast “have been working very closely” on a DCAS solution, and Comcast demonstrated a DCAS module technology at CES with LG. “We’ve done the early work of establishing the architecture, how it will work and even some beginnings of early deployment,” says Mark Hess, Comcast’s senior vice president of digital TV. “Now it’s time to integrate and operationalize the ideas of DCAS into set-top boxes and into networks. That’s a longer piece of work.” LaJoie says TWC currently has working prototypes of the first chipsets and is in the process of seeing those reduced to application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) before deploying the systems that will support DCAS. At CES, Mike Hayashi, TWC’s senior vice president, said field trials of DCAS would start later this year followed by larger rollouts next and then a national footprint of DCAS in 2008. Why can’t we be friends? While there has been some wrangling between the cable and consumer electronics industries over interactive cable, there have also been significant roads built though CableLabs’ CHILA (CableCARD-Host Interface License Agreement) agreements, which include signers Samsung, LG, Panasonic and Thomson. In addition to the OCAP-compliant, 56-inch HDTV set that Samsung demonstrated with Time Warner’s Digital Navigator Guide, several deals were announced at CES with CE companies. Comcast said it would buy new digital set-top boxes made by South Korean consumer electronics company Samsung Electronics beginning in 2007. Comcast plans to order 200,000 boxes initially and could order another 500,000 units. The new boxes will let users connect their digital music players and digital cameras to the boxes, Comcast said. Also at CES, Comcast said it would purchase 250,000 set-top boxes from Panasonic, with an option to purchase up to a million more. Comcast also secured the rights to use Panasonic’s middleware stack in other set-top boxes and devices. The European Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) is at the core of the OCAP standard, and both Panasonic and Samsung have previous MHP set-top box deployments. CableLabs’ Dulchinos thinks he’ll see LG, Panasonic, Thomson and possibly Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta in CableLabs with OCAP set-top boxes, as well as a few of them being deployed in the field this year. Panasonic’s Liao says this year his company will develop TV sets and home theater systems that use the OCAP middleware stack to provision the functions of both a TV set and home theater system to one remote, which Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts touted as one of the advantages of OCAP at CES. Roberts said at the OCAP press conference in Las Vegas that Comcast’s goal was to “harness the consumer electronics industry” and have a common language for products and devices that will provide “a huge consumer benefit.” In addition to the benefit to consumers, cable operators and OCAP vendors, cable programmers and national advertisers will also reap the benefits of OCAP once the platform has been deployed. In the past, programmers and advertisers never really had a way to access interactive capabilities that run on all of these different systems. “The last five years, there have been a lot of experiments with interactivity, but they always used a proprietary technology that wouldn’t scale, and there were a lot of problems with that,” Dulchinos says. “Now you genuinely have a national footprint, and those audiences are going to very interested in developing it.” Mike Robuck is associate editor for Communications Technology. Reach him at [email protected]. Sidebar 1 Deployments When it comes to OCAP trials, tests and deployments, cable will be putting the pedal to the metal this year. The following is a run down of some of the larger operators’ OCAP plans. -Time Warner Cable currently has a small field test underway in Gastonia, NC, to test Samsung’s two-way TV set. TWC plans to have OCAP headends serving 5.2 million customers this year in New York City; Green Bay and Milwaukee, WI; Lincoln, NE; and Waco, TX. Goal: TWC wants to support retail OCAP devices in those five markets and have OCAP rolled out in half of its footprint by October of this year. -Cox Communications will deploy On Ramp, a subset of OCAP, in several systems this year and plans to roll out OCAP field trials later this year. Goal: The On Ramp markets will feature weather, email, caller ID and other Web content on TV sets. -Comcast will ready four markets for OCAP-compliant devices this year; Philadelphia, Denver, Boston, and Union, NJ. Goal: Ensuring the systems in the four markets are ready to support OCAP devices when customers purchase them from retail outlets; small market field trials later this year. -Charter Communications starts OCAP deployments in several key markets in 2006. Goal: Upgrades to DAC or DNCS headends, monitor development to make sure end-to-end platform in place for scaled deployments in 2007. -Advance/Newhouse will spend this year preparing for OCAP deployments by starting in Indianapolis. Goal: Expand lessons learned from Indianapolis to other divisions. -Cablevision is currently porting applications to OCAP in New York City area. Goal: Retain the look and feel of its current digital cable service. Sidebar 2 RNG Set-tops: OCAP, DOCSIS and more At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January, Comcast announced two purchases that play into its real next-generation (RNG) set-top initiative, which includes OCAP as a core component. The deals included an order for 200,000 (with options for another 500,000) `RNG-100′ boxes from Samsung; and an order for 250,000 (with an option for as many as 1 million in the first year) `RNG-200′ boxes from Panasonic. Comcast Senior VP of Digital Television Mark Hess talked with CT thereafter about these boxes and the RNG initiative: Could you describe the two versions of the RNG? Think of a 100 as a set-top box that would be able to work within the realities of these platforms: OCAP, DOCSIS, advanced codecs, but not necessarily high-def, and no DVR. The advanced box (RNG 200) gets you high-def and DVR. What categories of technology were you looking for in the RNG class boxes? One was that the box would be capable of some advanced codec, whether H.264 or whatever we would require. That is probably the first and most significant change, in that it won’t be just an MPEG-2 device. Also, the capability—and this is part of NGNA that started there and has grown—for downloadable security. The box has enough memory and processing for OCAP, it has a larger hard drive, it has DOCSIS so we can do DSG signaling. And we’ve been focusing on a USB (universal serial bus) 2.0 port—for enough speed and universality so that devices can begin to interact with the set-top. Is this ground-breaking? It’s funny: The (RNG-200) is the kind of box that three years ago people would have called a media center, an advanced DVR box. But silicon and processing and memory march on. But we think it’s a flexible platform. It will be OCAP-based and will carry us into the future but will also, we think, come in at a really good price. What about the consumer interface? Does that go back to GuideWorks? Yes and no. The concept here, because it’s OCAP-capable, is that as we begin to deploy the first RNG boxes, they will be based with OCAP as their core software. GuideWorks is working hard right now at creating a Java-based version of their guide that will be an application working within the OCAP framework. There will be other applications down the road, too. When do you expect the deployment to begin? If we could do this by mid ’07, that would be a good thing. This is a big cycle we have to go through. Are other operators involved or interested? We certainly shared the spec with other operators. Time will tell as to what they think. Because it has a lot of the elements of NGNA, it certainly could be used (by other MSOs). Do you see Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta in parallel movement? Motorola and S-A have been involved in the process. And they’re great vendors. So I assume that their roadmaps will start to morph close to ours or go build these for us. Are you interested in the IPTV set-tops and what they can do? Am I interested? We need to understand them. And this set-top box, because it has an advanced codec capability, would be able to handle some of that. But we have a huge, embedded base of MPEG-2 devices. This box can do MPEG-2, it can do advanced codecs, it can do “IPTV.” We have the advantage of an embedded base because of the number of customers we have. We don’t have a green field where we can go right to IPTV. That being said, being able to layer those types of products on top of our own seems to be a tremendous advantage, as well. This is a box that lets us play in both worlds. Sidebar 3 More Specs CableLabs initially “finalized” the OCAP 1.0 profile in mid-2001 and only last summer closed this spec to further engineering change requests. OCAP 2.0 emerged four years ago. Supplements to the OCAP spec include OCAP Digital Video Recorder (DVR), OCAP Front Panel Extension and OCAP Home Networking Extension. Other categories of specs that fall within CableLabs’ OpenCable umbrella include: -Digital Receiver Interface Protocol Specification -Enhanced Television Specifications -Enhanced TV User Interface Guidelines -Host Device Core Functional Requirements -Host Device 2.0 Extensions -Interface Specifications -Out-of-Band Transfer Interface Specification -Security Specifications -Unidirectional Receiver CableLabs lists four additional references on its Web site that relate to the OpenCable initiative: -OpenCable Reference Power Load CableCARD Specification -DOCSIS Set-Top Gateway (DSG) Interface Specification -SCTE Digital Cable Network Interface Standard (ANSI/SCTE 40 2004) -SCTE Home Digital Network Interface Specification with Copy Protection (ANSI/SCTE 26 2004) For more information, go to

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