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Cable's Tru2way Build Continues

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner
1/8/2010
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The six largest "incumbent" U.S. cable MSOs report they are making progress with their tru2way network buildouts, but not all of them have managed to complete the job, roughly six months after they collectively missed an original, agreed upon deadline.

In 2008, as part of a binding "memorandum of understanding" negotiated with Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), those MSOs -- Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Charter Communications Inc. , Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), Cox Communications Inc. , Bright House Networks , and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) -- agreed that by July 1, 2009, they would provide network support for tru2way middleware and also support tru2way in the headends serving all digital cable systems. Charter is the exception; it has until July 1, 2010, to fulfill its obligation. Those commitments emerged a few months after Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts became the first big cable exec to have a keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show. (See Revealed: The Tru2way MOU and CES: Roberts Declares Open Season.)

Despite a good-faith effort to do so, none of the MSO signatories hit the original headend piece of the tru2way MOU, citing slowdowns brought on by the rotten economy and a digital broadcast TV transition date that ended up becoming a moving target. (See MSOs to Miss Tru2way Date , No Penalties for Missing Tru2way Date, and Broadcasters Rally 'Round June 12 .)

The MSOs involved in the MOU have not set any new deadlines to complete the job, but responses from them this week indicate that at least one is done, while the rest are getting very close or have made substantial progress. Here's a roundup:

  • Cox Communications – All done!
    Cox has tru2way enabled in 100 percent of its headends, according to a company spokesman. Initially, Cox, which is getting ready to roll out a fancy tru2way-based interface developed with NDS Ltd. , said it expects to have all markets using leased tru2way boxes this year. (See Cox Gives Guide Guidance .) As for retail support for tru2way, the MSO said it has yet to see any of those deployed in any of its markets, "nor have we been asked to support one by a consumer or a CE company."

  • Cablevision Systems – Done? Unclear
    Cablevision didn't have a specific tru2way status update to share, but a recent filing at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggests the MSO is deploying the system in tandem with its rollout of a downloadable conditional access system, or may in fact be completely done from a network standpoint.

    "Cablevision was the first cable operator in the nation to support separate, removable conditional access in all of its set top boxes, provides robust support for CableCARDs, and has deployed network support for Tru2Way throughout its service area," the MSO noted in the filing made on Dec. 22, 2009, in response to the FCC's call for comments on how the Commission can "encourage innovation" in the video device market.

    However, if Cablevision is rolling out tru2way along with its downloadable security effort, it's making good progress, nonetheless. Earlier this week, the company stated that it had incorporated downloadable security in all boxes to be deployed in "Phase I" areas at the end of 2009.

    Under Cablevision's original plan for that rollout, Phase I includes its service area on Long Island and parts of New Jersey. According to its commitment to the FCC, Cablevision must incorporate the new downloadable system in all new set-tops deployed in its footprint by the end of 2010. (See Cablevision Seeks Extended Security Waiver and Cablevision Scores Set-Top Waiver Extension .)

  • Comcast – Major markets nearly done
    Comcast said it has tru2way networks enabled in "nearly all major Comcast markets," citing its earlier retail partnerships in Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta, "with additional markets planned for 2010." (See Tru2Way in Atlanta and Denver, Chicago First to Get Tru2way TVs.) Comcast hasn't confirmed any others, but a Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) filing last month at the FCC indicated that Boston is one of the markets that's next in line.

    Comcast hasn't set a new, hard deadline for the rest of its tru2way build, but said it intends to use the platform "to bring new services to our subscribers and to enable more choices in tru2way TVs and set-top boxes in 2010."

    As that goes, TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) has announced that Comcast plans to offer TiVo as the "primary DVR option going forward" in a market yet-to-be-named, but the companies haven't released any detail on that. TiVo, which has complained that the cable industry discriminates against third-party retail box providers with unwieldy licensing and qualification requirements, has yet to announce a tru2way-based product. To date, not all of its other "primary DVR" deals with MSOs involve tru2way middleware. (See TiVo Covers Its Cable Bases , TiVo Gives Cable Both Barrels , RCN Makes TiVo Its Dominant DVR, and TVMax Taps TiVo as Primary HD-DVR.)

  • Time Warner Cable – Heavy on Cisco, Moto on deck
    A spokesman confirmed that the MSO plans to have tru2way enabled in the "majority" of its Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) markets by mid-2010, along with some of its bigger Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)-based systems. The bulk of TWC's markets are Cisco, but candidates for the initial round of tru2way rollouts on Moto systems include parts of Los Angeles and Dallas.

    TWC won't say when it expects to have all its networks equipped with the common platform, but notes that it has deployed 3 million tru2way-enabled boxes so far.

  • Bright House Networks – Mostly done... since 2007
    The company notes that it had tru2way deployed in most of its markets by the summer of 2007, but didn't say when it expects to have support across the board.

    But, it's been buying and deploying tru2way-based boxes from Cisco and Samsung for the markets where the platform's currently available, and it's already deployed more than half a million of those devices, according to a company official.

  • Charter Communications – We'll hit our deadline
    Despite having an extra year to complete its obligation due to its financial situation (it emerged from bankruptcy last month), the MSO has been active on the tru2way front. Charter said it "is fully supportive of tru2way and plans to meet our July 2010 commitment." (See Charter Leaves Chapter 11 .)

    The MSO also says it's "coordinating with consumer electronics companies to support the service" and expects to launch Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) in most of its footprint this year, referring to a lighter interactive television platform that works on all boxes.

    But what does it matter?
    Although the MSOs are behind their original commitment, it still begs the question: Is this delay really a big deal?

    From a near-term retail standpoint, probably not. So far, Comcast is the only MSO to support tru2way at retail, and consumers would be hard pressed to find these TVs at retail outlets. Most tru2way box makers, meanwhile, intend to sell their wares directly to MSOs rather than take the retail route. In these early days of tru2way implementation, the more immediate benefit will likely be the development of a common application platform that can handle the MSOs' native apps as well as those developed by third parties. (See Tru2way's Retail Forecast: Cloudy , Is Tru2way Ready to Grow Up? , and A Tru2way App Store? )

    Moreover, the FCC call for comments on video device innovation could turn into a rule-making effort that could alter the existing separable security rules, and the mere specter of that could inhibit tru2way retail action in the short-term. (See Whither the CableCARD?)

    Panasonic and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) have achieved tru2way certification from CableLabs for a handful of digital TVs between them, but the idea of a TV with integrated tru2way appears to be losing out in favor of a strategy centered on tru2way "set-back" boxes.

    The idea there is to allow TV manufacturers flexibility in creating and selling TVs that aren't weighted down with the tru2way components (which add about $200 to the costs), but still have the option to sell those screens in tandem with digital cable TV boxes that can be mounted on the back and communicate through an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) connection. That will allow the box to operate and be out of view, though it'll be quite interesting to see how well one of them fares hanging off this bad boy. (See Cable's Got Ideas for a Universal Retail Box .)

    Advanced Digital Broadcast (ADB) has already obtained certification for its set-back box, and Sony has shown some interest in selling them with its Bravia TVs. Panasonic also has a version in the works. (See Panasonic Appeals Over 'Set-Back' Ruling and Sony Drives ADB's Set-Back.)

    — Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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