The digital set-top is in transition. Motorola’s DCT 2000 is headed for retirement, and the portfolios of Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta now feature multiple families of products, from the 1700 or 1800 class budget boxes to the high-end media centers or gateways.
Meanwhile, vendors such as Pace, Panasonic, Pioneer Sony and UEC, with encryption technologies licensed from Motorola, S-A and Sony (via Passage), have further differentiated the market, giving cable operators additional choices in serving their subs.
And up ahead is the integrated digital TV set. Leveraging CableLabs’ OpenCable initiative, which was aimed at driving set-tops to retail, consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers and cable operators nailed down specs for a one-way box in December. Negotiations over two-way are ongoing. The retail strategy
This move toward retail has been gathering steam for several years. “It’s happened through OpenCable, through PODs, which are now being called CableCARDs, (and) by introducing new set-top vendors into the marketplace,” Mark Hess, Comcast vice president of digital services, says.
The potential upside is real. “First, it’s a good place to sell our products,” continues Hess. “Second, if a customer can buy a set-top (whether integrated or not), then that obviously could be good for us from a less capital out standpoint, and it could be good for the consumer also, for more fully featured equipment.” Sounds great. But what about these integrated TV sets? How are they going to behave if and when they show up on the network? Answering that question takes some guesswork, but several technical factors bode well for their success. First, today’s integrated circuits (ICs) are fully featured and platform agnostic. Second, removable security technology is proven. Third, the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), which could serve as the software environment for the interactive box, actually works. Finally, communication over the two-way box is likely to use Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS). Let the chips fall As for the technology driving the development of integrated TV sets, consider the silicon chip. Especially its own integration.
“Seven or eight years ago, you would see systems that were 10 chips,” Brian Sprague, director of marketing of set-top boxes for Broadcom’s broadband division, says. “And now you’re down to one.”
The story is similar at Oak Technology (now part of Zoran.) “Before our two-chip set, to do a set-top box for TV, particularly if you wanted to do high-definition, you’d have to have about five different components,” Neil Mitchell, director of marketing for Oak’s TeraLogic division, says. Last year, Oak introduced its own single chip. “The single chip includes DSP, CPU, video decoder, conditional access, the I/O and all the bridging functionality,” Mitchell says. “This truly is a single-chip back end.” And integration defines the RF front end, as well. Anadigics’ silicon/Gallium Arsenide double conversion tuners, for instance, which currently reside in two chips (one up-conversion, the other down-conversion), now are destined for a single chip. Costs and platforms
This kind of integration is consumer-friendly in two ways. It drives costs down, and it facilitates cross-platform application.
From five chips to two chips to one chip, Mitchell says costs for an HDTV or an HD set-top (including the RF front end) dropped from $185 to $100 to $60. Ron Michels, Anadigics vice president for broadband products, says simply: “One package is cheaper.”
Of course, reducing costs is key to driving greater volume. That plus smaller packaging also make it easier to redirect technology. It’s happening within the existing set-top space, for instance, with Pioneer moving from an S-A to a Broadcom chipset in its Voyager 3000 series. And it will happen in the integrated TV set arena. “Now we have a single IC that we provide to both TV and set-top companies,” says Oak’s Mitchell, whose company scored design wins with Sony and Thomson early this year. Anadigics’ RF circuitry is a fixture in Motorola set-tops and a component linked to multiple tuners in some S-A boxes. Michels expects more business from the two-way negotiations than the completed one-way pact, but he is optimistic in either case: “My products will end up in TVs.” Broadcom also is well positioned to serve this new market, especially given the reliance in last December’s plug-and-play agreement on standards associated with the cable industry. “The TV manufacturers are desperately trying to add value,” Sprague says. “They are all jumping on this cable-ready application, quite furiously.” And if a Broadcom chip works in a Motorola set-top, it should work elsewhere. “Now you see it…”
Another encouraging sign is that removable security is now tried and tested. The first point of deployment (POD) modules built to the OpenCable spec showed up in July 2000, just in time to meet the FCC-imposed deadline (if not any real market demand).
But the technology has advanced. CableLabs first qualified S-A’s POD 1.1 module and, as we went to press, qualified PODs from Motorola and NDS. “If you went to the Panasonic booth (at NCTA), you saw a POD-enabled TV. Same thing in the Motorola booth,” John Hildebrand, vice president of multimedia technology at Cox Communications, says.
“They show you the POD-enabled TV,” recounts Hildebrand. “They say, ‘Look this is an encrypted digital channel. Now you see it.’ And they pull out the POD, and they say, ‘Now you don’t.’” The business model for removable security, including licensing fees, pricepoints, operational costs and even demand, remains somewhat opaque. But one further indication that these PCM-CIA form factor devices are ready for prime time is that the MSO and CE negotiators have re-christened them as CableCARDs. (Although engineers may take a while to adopt the snappy label.) What about software? So the silicon and CableCARDs are lining up. Cable engineers wrestling with software-intensive video on demand (VOD) also might want to ask about the software demands on an interactive TV set. The two-way specs may remain in negotiation for some time. As such, ongoing work with OCAP on existing set-tops serves as a proxy for measuring the demands of shuttling software and messages across multiple platforms. “We’re working on OCAP right now, and we’re working on platform software for the low-end set-tops, too, that will grow into OCAP,” Hess says, referring specifically to Liberate software. “Everything’s got to be integrated together: hardware, software, controller, networks, everything,” he continues. “Right now it’s more about developing the software. We have to get that done first, and then we’ll get it integrated into the set-tops.”(For more on making the headend OCAP-compliant, see Communications Technology, August 2003.) Cox’s Hildebrand says OCAP is on track. “It’s really designed to insulate the application from the set-top, because it’s got a Java virtual machine in there,” The upshot: it really doesn’t matter what CPU is driving the underlying box. And, again, the evidence is encouraging. “Guys that have done OCAP implementations, people like ADB Global, headed by Bill Luehrs… will take the same app and run it on multiple set-tops, with multiple OCAP implementations,” Hildebrand says. “And they have that running today.” ADB invited NCTA attendees to tour its facilities in Chicago, and on the show floor it was conducting a proof-of-concept demo with Microsoft on a Motorola DCT 2500. And communication? CableCARDs for encryption, OCAP for application programming interfaces (APIs). That leaves set-top communications, which has been out-of-band via particular implementations: Digital Storage Media-Command and Control (DSMCC) for S-A, and ALOHA for Motorola. Looking ahead, odds-makers are circling an industry favorite. “If you took a poll… in the industry, I think that most people would say that the interactive spec will be based upon a control channel that’s a DOCSIS channel,” Broadcom’s Sprague says. Hildebrand says OpenCable laid the groundwork with its DOCSIS set-top gateway (DSG) spec, which provides standard protocols for such things as frequency searches and message headers. (For more on DSG, see Ron Hranac’s May 2003 column.) DSG will likely end up in plug-and-play 2, contends Hildebrand, who is not part of the negotiations. “MSOs are going to want it to be totally compatible with the OpenCable out-of-band, and the CE guys need something common, so why would it be anything else?” If that proves to be the case, cable engineers well versed in DOCSIS have less to worry about when these two-way boxes eventually appear on the network. You decide The plug-and-play prong of cable’s retail strategy could begin materializing this holiday season. But that initiative only mirrors a consumer-oriented approach which operators, and their existing set-top partners, are already pursuing. Predominantly a DCT 2000 plant, Comcast already has begun exploiting Motorola’s wider portfolio. “As we’ve introduced HD, we’ve moved to the DCT 5100, soon to be 6200 class,” Hess says. “We’re also introducing S-A’s 8000 class (which) have hard drives in them, and we’ll be looking to do that with Motorola, hopefully by the end of the year.” Cox uses multiple S-A Explorer 2000 class boxes and has now settled on the 3250 and 3250HD as its basic set-tops. In some markets, Cox subs can purchase S-A’s sleekly packaged, silver Explorer 3270HD directly. Cox also has deployed the Explorer 8000. On the Motorola side, it has the DCT 2000s and 5100 and is awaiting the 6208 DVR model. As for new players, Comcast already has introduced Pace and Panasonic boxes on the S-A side and is expecting to do the same on its Motorola plant this year. “We’re looking at other companies, also,” Hess adds. Behind the proliferation of set-tops, of course, is a growing portfolio of services. “What’s really happening is that three kinds of separate and distinct products are being added into the digital arsenal: VOD, HD and DVR,” Hess says. The question of which boxes best deploy which services has so far been a matter for discussion among operators and manufacturers themselves. Pioneer’s HD-PVR Passport Echo software is such a show-stopper, for instance, that Motorola is migrating it to the forthcoming 6208. Moving forward, however, retail gives consumers a way to enter this discussion directly. Network transitions Cable’s residential end-points in part determine what happens elsewhere on the network. A spokesperson for AOL Time Warner’s Mystro TV division, for instance, confirms that its network DVR platform is designed to run on existing digital boxes. And what happens at the headend, naturally, shapes the technology that ends up in the home. Sony’s Passage technology, which enables other conditional access (CA) systems, will accelerate the multivendor trend if ongoing trials at Comcast and Charter advance favorably. The all-digital prototypes seen at this year’s National Show are further cases in point. David Novak, vice president of marketing for Pace Micro Systems, expects to begin shipping Digital to Analog Adapters (DCAs) within 12 months, if not sooner. “We’re getting a lot of operator interest,” Novak says. For the industry at large, however, this network transition may take a while. Going from more to mostly to all-digital could take years. Add more for the jump to all-IP. At which point the PC becomes a set-top, and the DCT2000 winds up on eBay, if not in an episode of Antiques Road Show. Jonathan Tombes is executive editor of Communications Technology. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.