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Cable's Got Ideas for a Universal Retail Box

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner
12/11/2009
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A digital set-top platform that could spark a retail market and apply to cable, telco, and satellite TV operators hasn't made it beyond the vaporware phase, but some folks on the cable side of a possible cross-industry effort already have some ideas about how such a device could interface with disparate network environments.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) , which first proposed the idea for a cross-industry "all-MVPD" (multichannel video programming distributor) device in 2007, has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open a formal notice of inquiry on that specific topic. For now, the FCC has promised to at least look into the all-MVPD issue as it gathers comments on how the Commission can help accelerate the development of a retail market for "national portable video devices" as it vets a national broadband plan it will present to Congress in February. (See Whither the CableCARD? and FCC Boots Up National Broadband Plan .)

Everything's still in the formative stages, but officials with the NCTA tell Cable Digital News that a good starting point for what that product might look like is the so-called "set-back box" (SBB) Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) showed off at the recent Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Cable-Tec Expo and described in a recent filing. Although Panasonic's tru2way version is intended to be married to Panasonic TVs, the all-MVPD boxes envisioned by the NCTA would be made to apply to all new, digital TVs using a common interface. (See Panasonic Appeals Over 'Set-Back' Ruling .)

That interface would require buy-in from all the industry players, of course, but one possible candidate is HDMI-CEC (High-Definition Multimedia Interface - Consumer Electronics Control), a standard that's already present in new TVs, and one that's being worked into the tru2way specs.

One key benefit of HDMI-CEC is that it turns the TV into a remote control communications hub for all devices that are connected to it via bidirectional HDMI cables. That means the primary TV remote could control not just the TV but the all-MVPD set-back device, and clean up lots of the clutter for consumers who are annoyed by having to use a traditional set-top and a bag-full of remote controls. (See Tru2way: Remote Chances .)

That might work if the cross-industry decision makers agree on HDMI-CEC, or some other interface. But once the common connection is agreed upon, manufacturers would then be called upon to develop versions that can connect to cable, telco, and satellite TV networks. Presumably, those that make the all-MVPD devices (a group that might include the TV makers themselves) would also have the ability to innovate and sprinkle in features and capabilities that would set them apart from the leased box market.

Taking things a step further, those boxes would also be able to support different middlewares and set-top operating systems, such as tru2way or Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) Mediaroom, or whatever is required by the type of network the device is connecting to. That would likewise mean all the parties would have to agree on the specs for memory, processing power, and other component-level features, but all that's still to be determined.

Ideally, this would also allow some significant latitude on what types of conditional access systems, encryption methods, and digital rights management systems the boxes would support.

"If you accepted that conception, then the set-back box could accommodate multiple kinds of security without every MVPD having to follow the same security protocol," says Paul Glist, a cable industry lawyer and partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLC.

The broader implication here is that TV makers would no longer have to go through the integration headaches and expense of integrating tru2way stacks and supporting native cable applications in the sets themselves, and then hope consumers buy them. Instead, their TVs would just need to support the all-MVPD interface.

This, of course, could threaten the budding market for completely integrated "set-top-free" digital TVs that Panasonic has championed. Although Panasonic's efforts demonstrate that the approach is feasible, it's still not clear that there's big consumer demand for it. In fact, Samsung Corp. has obtained tru2way certification for four LCD TVs, but the company has yet to bring them to retail. (See Denver, Chicago First to Get Tru2way TVs, Tru2Way in Atlanta, and Tru2way's Retail Forecast: Cloudy .)

But, as the NCTA sees it, the all-MVPD set-back approach it's advocating would simplify the execution, with the box "unobtrusively" hidden behind the set. Plus, it would result in a portable retail platform for, not just cable, but for the satellite and telco guys as well.

Although using HDMI-CEC in concert with a set-back box is one idea that NCTA's putting on the table, the organization has been lean in providing other technical possibilities. And that's on purpose. "We're not trying to pre-judge the technical approach to making this work," Glist insists. "What we are saying is that the issue has to be conceived of as something that affects all MVPDs, and not just one [cable]."

And it's not yet known if the telcos and satellite TV players will even back the high-level idea of an all-MVPD, though there are signs that some of them are at least warming to the idea. However, an AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) spokeswoman says her company has no position to share on the all-MVPD concept at this time, though the company does plan to participate in the current FCC proceeding on video device innovation. Comments for that are due December 21.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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