Boxing Up 'Seven-Oh-Seven'

T-minus three weeks and counting...

The U.S. cable industry's three primary set-top suppliers -- Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Scientific Atlanta , and Pace Micro Technology -- are all gearing up in anticipation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -mandated ban on boxes with integrated security. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven'.)

Starting July 1, any newly purchased and newly deployed digital set-top must have separable security, more often than not occurring via a special interface that houses the CableCARD, a removable module that authorizes the box to receive digital cable services. This marks the latest in a series of reports from Cable Digital News that will track the industry's progress as it prepares for the deadline.

Motorola, SA, and Pace have all developed CableCARD-capable "host" models that are similar in feature and function to their integrated security counterparts. They are also two-way, able to handle interactive cable services such as video-on-demand (VOD). This table outlines the different models and a short note on their capabilities and features.

Table 1: CableCARD 'Host' Makers & Models
Company Model Notes/Capabilities
Motorola DCH100 A play on the DCT700, Motorola's entry level all-digital standard-definition set-top, with a CableCARD interface. This standard-definition-only model also provides on-board support for the MOCA (Multimedia over Cable Alliance) home networking scheme.
Motorola DCH200 Hybrid analog/digital standard-definition box. No MOCA interface.
Motorola DCH3200 High-definition receiver, all-digital.
Motorola DCH6200 High-definition receiver with hybrid digital/analog support.
Motorola DCH3416 All-digital, high-definition-DVR with dual tuners.
Motorola DCH6416 Hybrid analog/digital version of the DCH3416.
Pace Micro Technology Miami DC757X HD High-definition video. DVR can be added via the box's external Serial-ATA hard disk drive port. Integrated Docsis 2.0 modem. All-digital box.
Pace Micro Technology Tahoe TDC778X HD DVR High definition and DVR support built in. Integrated Docsis 2.0 modem. All-digital.
Pace Micro Technology TDC779X HD DVR Hybrid analog/digital box with high definition and DVR support baked in.
Pace Micro Technology Vegas TDC577X SD-DVR Standard-definition only with on-board DVR. All-digital SD DVR.
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 4240C Standard-definition tuning.
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 4240HDC Standard-definition and high-definition tuning.
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300C Standard-definition box with dual-tuner DVR. Hybrid analog and digital device.
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HDC High-definition box with dual-tuner DVR. Hybrid analog and digital support.
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8240C All-digital version of the Explorer 8300C.
Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8240HDC All-digital version of the Explorer 8300HDC.
Source: The companies, Cable Digital News

While those products differ in many respects, execs from each vendor report at least one common thread: The majority of orders from operators call for the set-top to be pre-married to the CableCARD, a move that will remove some of the operational uncertainty (and some added costs) out of the equation.

"Our intention was to offer product in either configuration," says Rob Folk, senior product manager, digital video solutions for Motorola's Home & Networks Mobility unit. But the majority of Motorola's customers have asked for the card to be pre-inserted, he adds.

"90-plus percent" of host box orders are of the pre-mated variety for Scientific Atlanta, according to Dave Clark, director of product strategy and management for the company's subscriber division.

As for the CableCARD models themselves, "all products have gone into mass production," Motorola's Folk says.

SA's strategy was to create CableCARD versions of the company's mostly widely used set-tops with integrated security. One big reason: "To be risk-averse as we approach 'Seven-oh-Seven,’ " Clark says. Moving to the CableCARD "is a major changeover," he adds, so SA stayed with already proven chipsets for its first family of "host" set-tops.

That will also ensure SA doesn’t get saddled with heaps of unusable parts. "We're sticking with models that have been in production for awhile," Clark says.

But there are some key differences. The "host" versions have a larger memory footprints, giving them enough firepower to support the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), a common middleware layer specified by CableLabs .

To help with the transition, Pace's boxes use a software platform called "EngineWare" that allow the set-top to run legacy apps as well as those that run on OCAP-based. It will also aid in "flipping," the process of shifting the box from legacy to OCAP mode. In demos, Pace has shown it to take seven or eight minutes to complete the flip, though the speed at which it can happen correlates to the amount of capacity an operator sets aside for just that function.

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