Home networking may not be the hottest topic in cable circles these days, but engineers are still moving forward with technical advances aimed at making home networking a more popular and profitable service for cable operators. In one such effort, CableLabs officials have quietly crafted an "extension” specification to their OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP) standard for digital cable receivers. The new OCAP modular extension spec, issued with little fanfare in mid-May, spells out the minimum technical requirements for OpenCable-compliant set-tops that aim to hook up with other digital devices on cable networks. Specifically, the OCAP extension spec defines an application program interface (API) for home networking, requiring consumer electronics makers to create protocols enabling their set-tops to recognize connected devices, find digital entertainment content stored on the devices, transfer the content across the home network, and present the content to the home viewer. In the interest of maximum flexibility, however, the extension spec doesn’t tell consumer electronics manufacturers which protocols they should use. Speaking at Cable-Tec Expo in in June, Frank Sandoval, director of OCAP Specifications for CableLabs, said the extension spec aims to give the cable industry a greater role in shaping the development of OpenCable boxes with home networking capabilities. In a similar effort, CableLabs officials have also crafted OCAP extension specs for digital video recording (DVR) and front panel applications. "We’re trying to have a little bit more say in what’s happening," Sandoval said. "It gives those applications more flexibility." Don Dulchinos, senior vice president for advanced platforms and services at CableLabs, said the industry research and development consortium is also working on OCAP extension specs for set-top makers that want to add interactive TV features to their receivers. Rather than draft a new version of the entire OCAP spec for each application, CableLabs officials are also looking into developing extension specs for portable media devices and several other enhanced features that he declined to discuss. "We always want to migrate OCAP to be more capable," he said. "So we came up with the notion of extensions for all the different APIs." Structured wiring initiative In another home networking initiative unveiled at Cable-Tec Expo, a separate set of cable engineers has developed a program to certify electronics wiring installers working in new homes. Known as the Greenfield Partnership, the program seeks to make structured wiring installations meet cable technical requirements so that cable operators can compete with satellite TV providers, the Bells and other rivals in providing digital entertainment services throughout the home. Structured wiring, an increasingly standard feature in brand new homes, supplies the basic infrastructure for linking electronic equipment. Cable operators have complained that many of the nation’s 6,000 low voltage integrators, who usually put in the structured wiring, use poor equipment or practices to carry out the work. As a result, home owners often blame cable operators for wiring problems and turn to other service providers. "These are problems and issues that are pertinent now, standards issues that must be resolved," said Justin Junkus, president of KnowledgeLink and CT telephony editor, noting that more than 1 million new homes with structured wiring are built each year. Speaking at the same show session as Sandoval, Junkus described home networking as "a gateway to many other things" and "a weapon to keep cable in the game." Stephen Brazil, director of Home Networking Depot, said the new certification program for low voltage integrators, developed in Florida, gives cable operators control over the quality of equipment going into the home. It said the program also provides a "co-branding" opportunity for cable operators while cutting costs for both the integrators and the home builders. "This whole program was developed from an engineering need to save what was going on," said Brazil, noting that Florida MSOs had lost 12,000 new homes to rival providers. "We have builders now that are knocking on our doors." Alan Breznick Operators both agree and diverge on OCAP While most major cable operators are driving down the road toward meaningful OpenCable Applications Platform (OCAP) deployments in the near future, it does seem as though they’re traveling on a divided highway. OCAP was the focus of a panel discussion during the final workshop at this year’s Cable-Tec Expo in San Antonio. Craig Smithpeters, Cox Communications manager of advanced technology and standards, started the workshop with a rundown of Cox’s OnRamp, which, through the use of Java, is designed to help transition existing set-top boxes with OCAP-like abilities. With OCAP designed to take advantage of more powerful hardware, OnRamp’s mission is to solve the lack of a middleware platform for older Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola set-top boxes. "OnRamp is not a replacement for, or an alternative to, OCAP," Smithpeters said. "It’s a way to go back in time, so to speak, and put something on that will fit those legacy boxes. At Cox, we have a whole separate OCAP program that is going parallel to this." While Smithpeters touted OnRamp as a way to bridge the gap with the legacy boxes already out there in TV land, George Sarosi, principal architect for Time Warner Cable, said the top cable operators in the United States will start OCAP trials near the end of this year with deployments to follow in 2006. The bottom line In response to a question from moderator Jim Braun, who is group vice president of software development for Time Warner, about how OCAP will increase cable operators’ revenues, Sarosi said one of the big benefits of OCAP is interactive advertising. Walter Michel, senior director, platform and application engineering for Comcast, pointed to reduced costs that increase the value of the entertainment platform when he answered the same question, while Smithpeters said OCAP would serve to more "tightly tie the bundle together." When asked whether they would consider using OnRamp, both Michel and Sarosi said they would wait to see how Cox does with it before committing. "I’m very interested in anything that works with the standard platform," Sarosi said, "especially a Java platform that works with legacy boxes, but our current strategy is not to put anything on OnRamp. We’re encouraged to see them working on it and to see how it goes. If it’s successful, I can begin moving some of our Java applications to legacy set-top boxes." Mike Robuck

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