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CableLabs Touts OpenCable Progress

CableLabs has conducted what it called a "successful" OpenCable interop event in early October, a disclosure that comes as the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) continues to push an alternative proposal for digital, two-way televisions and set-tops called "DCR Plus."

Both OpenCable and DCR Plus are being advanced as common, open technology schemes that deliver interactive video applications to consumer-side digital set-tops and televisions. While OpenCable is an initiative led by the cable industry, with 2008 being touted as a big deployment year, DCR Plus is a budding, non-OpenCable variant headed up by the CEA.

The cable industry has argued that supporting DCR Plus would be costly and that the CEA's proposed platform would not be able to deliver as wide a range of applications as OpenCable and would therefore slow the launch of new cable services. The CEA, meanwhile, is billing DCR Plus as a less complex, complementary approach that would tap directly into the consumer electronics industry to deliver competitive products and innovations "above and beyond those supported or allowed" via the OpenCable Platform. CableLabs said 15 companies joined the OpenCable Platform interop, considered a step toward full certification and qualification testing. The event tested interoperability among OpenCable and enhanced television (eTV) applications. The next interop is slated for Spring 2008, according to the Louisville, Colo.-based cable R&D house.

CableLabs declined to disclose the participating companies but noted that CableCARD vendors, likely to include both Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and Scientific Atlanta , and iTV carousel generator companies also supported the testing. Softel-USA Inc. and OpenTV Corp. (Nasdaq: OPTV) are among the leading providers of carousel technologies.

The OpenCable Platform, which includes a common middleware component, aims to create a national set-top software footprint so that interactive television application developers do not have to port their products to disparate digital cable platforms. It's also seen as an enabler for a retail market for cable-ready, interactive digital set-tops.

Operators, led by Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), have begun to install OpenCable headends and set-tops outfitted with its middleware. Last month, Time Warner Cable disclosed at an event in New York it had deployed 150,000 set-tops outfitted with the OpenCable Platform, with plans to support it in all its systems by the end of 2008.

Earlier this year, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) said it was testing OpenCable in four markets: Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, and Union, N.J. (See MSOs Say OCAP's Not a Snap.)

That progress could be hindered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , which has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on the subject. A decision to go with the OpenCable Platform or DCR Plus, or, more likely, both, could be handed down as early as this month, according to industry sources.

In filings to the FCC, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) previously has challenged the CEA proposal for supporting only a "limited set of interactive services." (See Two-Way Battle Reaches FCC.)

In a response to the CEA filing on Oct. 30, the NCTA spelled out what it believes to be "numerous technical problems," with the DCR Plus proposal (sometimes referred to as "DCR+"), noting that the CEA "oversimplifies and mischaracterizes the enormous technical standards work and reengineering of cable systems across the country that would be needed to support DCR+."

Although DCR Plus is being billed as a low-cost solution, the cable industry argues that devices based on that proposed system would not support several existing cable services, such as interactive polling/voting, interactive advertising, caller ID via the TV, nor "Start Over," a service from Time Warner Cable that allows customers to restart shows (those with proper copyright clearance) already in progress. Cable also argues that DCR Plus would "unnecessarily delay" the deployment of the OpenCable Platform and would require a redesign of the CableCARD, a removable security module central to the FCC's July 2007 ban on set-tops with integrated security

"CEA acknowledges that standards do not currently exist to implement DCR+, but otherwise attempts to divert the Commission from the true costs associated with its proposal," the NCTA said.

The CEA has countered in filings of its own that, "contrary to the cable industry parody, DCR+ grants UDCPs (Unidirectional Digital Cable Products) all of the features current leased solutions have."

CEA also challenged cable's claims that supporting DCR Plus would require massive engineering. The organization acknowledges that DCR Plus would require a common "network-agnostic" interface at the CableCARD or the customer premises equipment, but "this does not necessarily require significant changes to the cable system, only to the device that makes it common."

On that point, the CEA pointed to cable's own proposal for enabling two-way switched digital video (SDV) applications to run on inherently one-way, digital cable-ready devices that use CableCARD security modules. The proposed "Tuning Resolver" is described as a small, external adapter that can receive programs in a cable operator's "switched" tier. It would connect to the TV or set-top and modify the firmware via a USB 2.0 connection. (See NCTA Sees Solution to Switching Snag.)

"If this can be accomplished for switched digital video without any addition changes to the cable system, despite its network-specific translation requirements, then the other elements of DCR+ should be considered straightforward and implementable," the CEA argued.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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