Big MSOs Embrace the Evolving Set-Top
LR Cable News Analysis Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading 2/7/2007
Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) are rolling out DSG-enabled set-tops this year. No word yet on Cox Communications Inc. 's deployment plans.
"We're going to take a similar approach -- just get DSG out there," said Howard Pfeffer, group VP of broadband engineering and technology for Time Warner. Speaking at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) 's Emerging Technologies conference in Houston last month, he said the MSO's rollout plans are part of an effort to "have a uniform presence across all our platforms." Company officials wouldn't elaborate further.
DSG technology uses the cable industry's open Docsis standard to send out-of-band video control signals between the cable system headend and cable modems embedded in the set-top boxes in subscribers' homes. It enables cable operators to send and receive data from customer set-tops, including electronic program guides, emergency alerts, and, eventually, downloadable conditional access.
The other nice thing about DSG is it frees up precious RF spectrum for other uses, eliminates the need for extra specialized equipment at the cable headend, and cuts the need for some tuners, modulators, and demodulators in the set-tops.
DSG set-tops can act as residential gateways, VOIP terminals, and other IP-enabled devices, supporting such new convergence services as video email and caller ID on the TV screen. They also can be used for unicasting, or delivering a unique video stream to each home and even set-top.
Although DSG technology has been available to cable operators for a couple of years, most haven't taken advantage of it yet because the need hasn't been pressing enough. Now that's starting to change.
Richard Rioboli, VP of product platform engineering for Comcast, said the MSO's embrace of DSG technology is part of the company's drive to standardize the different configurations of its numerous cable systems. Without such standardization, he said, it would be tough for the company to introduce new cable services and applications quickly on a national basis.
"It may not be sexy but it's important," he said, also speaking at the SCTE ET show. "You want to introduce a new program guide? First, you have to figure out how many configurations you have."
Comcast officials said they're working with such new industry set-top box suppliers as Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) to outfit their systems with DSG-enabled boxes. But they declined to say where they've rolled out DSG so far and where they're heading next.
Time Warner, Comcast, and Cox are beginning to introduce OCAP-equipped set-top boxes and TV sets in select markets. Time Warner unveiled OCAP-compliant HDTV sets and set-tops from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) in New York last month. Cox has started a market trial in Gainesville, Fla., and Comcast plans to conduct a trial in an undisclosed market this spring.
Among other things, the OCAP middleware stack enables cable operators to offer the same interactive and on-demand services throughout the country. Plus, interactive application developers can create a single piece of software to run their applications on many different cable systems.
Time Warner officials, who tested the Samsung OCAP sets in Gastonia, N.C., last year, have already ordered at least 50,000 OpenCable boxes from the electronics manufacturer. Following last month's commercial launch of the Samsung boxes in New York, they aim to introduce OCAP gear in Milwaukee and several other cable markets this year, as well as cities covered by fellow MSO Bright House Networks .
Comcast executives, who have ordered a combined total of at least 450,000 OCAP-capable set-tops from Panasonic and Samsung, plan to stage a lab trial of Panasonic boxes this winter and move into a market trial in the spring. They also intend to start testing Samsung's OCAP boxes in the field during the second half of the year.
Rioboli said live OCAP deployments will follow in several undisclosed markets before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Cox has begun testing several interactive TV services, including an interactive program guide from GuideWorks LLC , on Samsung's OCAP-enabled HDTV sets in Gainesville. Plans call for expanding the OCAP trial to other Cox cable systems later this year. In those new markets, Samsung intends to try out OCAP-based HD set-top boxes as well.
— Alan Breznick, Site Editor, Cable Digital News