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Comcast & Cox Deal Set-Tops at CES

With the cable industry under heightening pressure to open up its proprietary set-top boxes and encryption systems, two of the nation's biggest MSOs have inked deals to back digital cable-ready TV and set-tops that meet open tech standards.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Cox Communications Inc. announced separate pacts with major consumer electronics manufacturers to support digital TV sets equipped with the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP). Specified by Cable Television Laboratories Inc. (CableLabs) , OCAP is standardized middleware designed to enable all interactive digital cable services across different set-tops and digital sets.

In the larger of the two accords announced late Monday, Cox signed a letter of intent with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) to hasten the development of OCAP-based interactive services on Samsung high-definition TV (HDTV) sets, set-top boxes, and digital video recorders (DVRs). The two companies began testing some of these services, including an interactive program guide from GuideWorks LLC, in Cox's Gainesville, Fla., division last month.

Besides making use of OCAP specs, the trial is running on a digital cable headend and multi-stream CableCARDS supplied by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)'s Scientific Atlanta unit. Unlike the first wave of removable CableCARDS, the new multi-stream security modules support full two-way digital services.

Plans call for expanding the OCAP trial to other Cox cable systems later this year. In those later markets, Samsung intends to try out OCAP-based HD set-top boxes as well.

At the same time, Comcast and Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) said they will start joint testing of OCAP-based digital cable-ready sets in an undisclosed market later this month. The two companies expect the OCAP set trials to run through the rest of the year, followed by the first commercial rollouts in early 2008.

The Comcast-Panasonic test announcement comes exactly a year after the two companies unveiled a big OCAP set-top box deal at the 2006 CES. Under that deal, Panasonic is slated to produce as many as 1.25 million HD-DVR set-tops loaded with the OCAP software, starting with an initial run of 250,000 boxes.

In another video equipment deal unveiled at CES, Comcast and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) expanded their major digital cable set-top purchase agreement from last year. Under the modified, multi-year accord, Comcast will buy a number of Motorola's new OCAP-based set-tops, including several models stocked with the vendor's "Follow Me TV" multi-room DVR technology.

All six of the set-tops in Motorola's new "DCH" line, ranging from low-end digital set-tops to high-end HD-DVR boxes with dual tuners, will also support CableCARD security modules. Motorola officials said the new CableCARD-enabled boxes will start shipping in March, with the bulk of them rolling out to cable operators in the second quarter.

Unlike Motorola, Scientific Atlanta didn't announce any new set-top deals in the first days of CES. But, beating Motorola to the punch, it said it has started shipping CableCARD-equipped digital set-tops to cable customers for testing.

Scientific Atlanta officials said the CableCARD boxes, designed to help MSOs prepare for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's July 1 ban on new set-tops with integrated security features, will go into regular production by the end of next month. The manufacturer's first eight CableCARD-enabled models are all existing set-tops that have been modified to work with the separate security modules.

Finally, Digeo Inc. , a digital set-top box maker and interactive TV software designer backed by Charter Communications Inc. chairman Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures , unveiled its plans to go retail. At CES, Digeo said it expects to start shipping several products to stores in the second half of this year, including two advanced HD media recorders, one of them a multi-room DVR model.

Digeo, which now has about 400,000 cable subscribers through Charter, Comcast, and former Adelphia Communications cable systems, said it will also license its "Moxi" technology to other consumer electronics manufacturers for greater retail exposure.

— Alan Breznick, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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