Cable Tech

Cracks Emerge in the Moto-Cisco Duopoly

The Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)/Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) set-top and security duopoly in the US isn't sinking, but a new digital video platform from Comcast Media Center (CMC) and Evolution Broadband LLC certainly has the looks of a shot across the bow.

On Monday, on cue with this week's The Independent Show in Baltimore, CMC introduced HITS Central, a new headed management system generally targeted to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cable operators. As designed, HITS Central will offer operators a broader choice of set-top box and conditional access options, but the first partners are Evolution and its exclusive US security partner, Conax AS . (See Evolution, Conax Sign Exclusive Deal and Comcast Centralizes HITS.)

And they already have a taker: Campus Televideo, a company that provides "private" cable services on about 220 campuses nationwide, will start offering the combo at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., this fall.

The resulting service will use Evolution-made high-definition Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) boxes that integrate Conax's conditional access system. Because it's private, the cable system in Troy isn't encumbered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) separable security rules that took effect in July 2007. However, the FCC is considering an exemption that would allow all cable MSOs to deploy HD-DTAs with integrated security. (See FCC Floats 'Simple' Gateway, CableCARD Rules .)

Evolution Digital president Brent Smith says the HITS Central offering represents the first time US cable operators can pursue a digital video broadcast (DVB)-based option (popular in Europe) for their all-digital plans. Plus, it allows them to use a much broader array of potential set-top suppliers than they can get from traditional cable suppliers like Motorola and Cisco.

But Smith acknowledges that the option may not make practical sense for MSOs that already use those vendors extensively for digital TV, because they'd have to dual-carry their programming. "If you have a nominal amount of digital or no digital, this [DVB option] affords opportunities to use open standards with lots and lots of box choice," he tells Light Reading Cable.

Smith's rough estimate on the addressable market for Evolution in this respect is about 2 million subscribers. That factors in 300,000 to 600,000 subs among operators that have not deployed digital yet, plus another 500,000 or 600,000 for operators that have some digital underway, but haven't deployed much HD programming yet and might be able to afford a forklift move to DVB. Another potential 700,000 subs come out of a more disparate sector that includes condos and apartments.

As HITS Central goes, Evolution is starting off with its HD-DTA, which, Smith says, can be had for less than $100 per unit at present volumes. But fancier, higher-end boxes could factor in as well. Evolution also has a CableLabs -qualified CableCARD that uses the Conax security platform that can be paired with certain TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) DVRs and other more advanced boxes with CableCARD slots. (See CableLabs Blesses Evolution's CableCARD .)

But Evolution/Conax isn't the only DTA and box option that Comcast Media Center offers. It's also allowing smaller cable operators to use DTAs that work on the Motorola platform. That system is already operational, but it was not immediately known if any of CMC's HITS affiliates have started to deploy that particular DTA option. (See CMC, Moto Adapt to One-Way DTAs .)

UPDATE: Chris Poli, Moto's director of product line management for conditional access, confirmed that the company's DTAs are up and running with "several" HITS affiliates. Among examples, North Carolina-based TriCounty Telecom is deploying the boxes to help it go all-digital on 400MHz plant.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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