DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor


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CE/IT Proposal for Digital Cable TV Arrives

November 9, 2006

The consumer electronics and information technology (CE/IT) industries have now submitted their digital cable TV interface proposal to the FCC. The proposal lays out a regulatory and technical framework that would enable CE/IT manufacturers to market retail cable TV devices that would be functionally equivalent to the cable companies' proprietary leased set-top boxes.

The CE/IT proposal is in reaction to years of irreconcilable differences between the CE and cable industries, and the recent moves by the cable industry to bypass a 1996 Congressional mandate to open the proprietary cable box market to competition.

The CE/IT parties to the proposal include Sony, Dell, Hitachi, Intel, JVC, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Philips, Pioneer, Sharp, Toshiba, and TTE, and the Consumer Electronics Association. A pretty big crowd!

The proposal also highlights the changes that will be coming. First and foremost will be the move to bi-directional cable interfaces (from unidirectional, or one-way). The cable industry has been moving forcefully in that direction, and that seems to be the way the CE/IT people also want to go: "We support the Commission's efforts ... to bring two-way devices to the retail market as soon as possible."

These two-way "plug-and-play" devices you'll be seeing will be integrated into digital TVs (and computers), and will also be in the form of traditional cable set-top boxes. The objective is to provide the user with "a single, integrated device that displays and allows them to navigate among the interactive video services of their choice."

In the case of devices integrated into digital TVs, the proposal alleges that such TVs would not cost significantly more than a set without those built-in navigation features.

In addition to the type of cable experience you would have if you simply plugged the cable into the back of your TV, or if you are one of the few people who has a CableCARD installed (a one-way device), or if you have an older one-way cable box for unscrambling premium channels, the bi-directionality this proposal adopts adds several "basic" services.

These are 1) electronic program guides (EPG), 2) impulse pay-per-view (IPPV), 3) video on demand (VOD), and 4) switched digital video (SDV or SD).

Switched digital is not a service the consumer will normally be aware of, but it is very significant. Existing CableCARDs cannot accommodate SDV, but the proposal advocates adding "extensions" to existing unidirectional CableCARD specifications to permit SDV and the other three basic interactive services. These extensions to the specifications would allow for limited interaction with the cable provider distribution network by way of the conditional access hardware/software (the security function).

The proposal did clarify that CableCARDs in service now, and CableCARD devices (UDCRs) now being sold, could not be grandfathered into the new system. "We recognize that it is not possible to fix UDCRs that are already in consumer homes and that it may not be an effective allocation of cable or CE resources to spend significant time addressing the UDCR/switched digital issue. Instead, the Commission should limit MSOs' ability to migrate programming to switched digital until CE manufacturers have the capability to build and sell devices that can handle switched digital."

I suspect they will not be so direct with consumers.

So, if this proposal is embraced by the FCC and accepted by the cable industry (after some "encouragement" by the government), what would it look like to the cable subscriber who buys into it?

First, for your existing TV you either lease the set-top box the cable company offers, or you say no thanks and drive down to your local Best Buy (or whatever CE store you fancy), and look at your choices for competitive boxes from the likes of Sony, Toshiba, Sharp, etc. OR, if you're in the market for a new digital TV, you shop for one that's already bi-directional "digital cable ready," which will not be the same thing as "digital cable ready" is now.

For one thing, there will not likely be a CableCARD to install; you'll plug the cable into the back of your TV and the cable company will download its security software into the integrated conditional access chip.

Turn it on and the user interface on the screen may incorporate capabilities equivalent to, or greater than what the typical proprietary leased cable box might provide. Additional features could include the capability to select home movies and digital photos, to easily use parental controls, and innovative ways to sort through and view particular programming.

For example, if you are browsing for a video-on-demand movie to watch, the TV or box's interactive navigation programming could let you sort by and look at title, length, synopsis, genre, actors, directors, writers, and reviews. You could tell the device that you like a particular movie and it could offer suggestions for others that attract a similar audience. You could also look at technical specs for each movie such as resolution, aspect ratio, bit rate, coding, and frame rate.

This sort of data, and similar data for regular TV programming that would be used to make available an interactive electronic program guide, would have to be made available to consumer electronics manufacturers for the CE/IT proposal to work as presented. This is something the cable industry has resisted in the past.

Furthermore, existing CableCARD/conditional access technical specs would have to be changed so that this sort of programming information could be translated from its current proprietary and cable-service-specific form into a standard format that the TV or retail set-top box could recognize.

The CE/IT proposal also addresses home networking. It says "consumers should be allowed to save content to a DVR, to move content to a second or third TV, to a PC or to a portable device, subject only to the rules and limits set by the content provider and not subject to artificial and arbitrary limitations set by the cable operator."

A lot of people will be glad to hear that.

Finally, everyone wants this new conditional access regime to be software based (that is, no CableCARDs), but the CE/IT proposal recognizes that agreement on a software solution has not been forthcoming in the past. The proposal suggests that if "fair and feasible" downloadable software conditional access can be implemented within a "reasonable" period of time, the proposed technology for everything else can be finished simultaneously.

If the cable industry cannot agree to a software solution, then the proposal urges the FCC to move forward with a hardware approach based on the CableCARD we have now.

Hopefully the FCC will present the cable industry with choices that make the software solution look good, and we all end up with a consumer-friendly outcome.