EBIF Coming to DTAs
Evolution Digital LLC revealed to Light Reading Cable that the Colorado-based maker of standard-def and hi-def DTAs has an EBIF strategy well underway, intending to use the software platform to help it develop a broad range of DTA-focused applications, starting with user interfaces that can be customized by cable operators.
Evolution president Brent Smith said his company has already struck a partnership with a company that makes the EBIF user agent (the software client that goes in the set-top). He isn't naming it yet, but possible candidates include FourthWall Media Inc. , Zodiac Interactive , Navic Networks (now part of Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)), and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), which has developed its own EBIF user agent.
The EBIF UI (user interface) is considered phase one of Evolution's plan, but Smith envisions the creation of an open architecture that would allow third parties to write EBIF apps for its DTAs. The next phase could include apps such as caller ID to the TV or "bound" EBIF apps, such as a poll, that are associated with a live program.
That work could expand the capabilities of the DTA, an inexpensive, one-way digital-to-analog converter that's typically been used in MSO analog spectrum reclamation projects. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan and Insight Joins the DTA Dance .)
DTAs aren't "interactive" because they don’t have a return path. However, "bound and unbound [EBIF apps] are still very doable in a one-way environment," Smith insists, noting that every DTA Evolution sells has the capability to operate an EBIF user agent.
"We look at this as a great opportunity to continue to evolve a one-way, basic DTA that creates more value to the customer to help the digital transition," he says. "Our baseline is to ensure that EBIF becomes the de facto middleware platform for our D-to-A strategy."
Smith says Evolution is proposing the idea to several operators, including Cablemás of Mexico, which is in the process of deploying 200,000 SD and HD DTAs from Evolution outfitted with Conax AS security as the MSO ramps up a digital transition based on the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) standard. (See Cable Catchup .)
Evolution isn't going into much of the technical detail on how EBIF apps can live in the DTA world, but it's likely to involve a technique called "force-tuning."
But will the FCC approve?
That idea came to light in a recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filing from Comcast, which explained that, despite having no built-in return-path, DTAs are perfectly capable of receiving network instructions to force-tune to a particular channel. (See Comcast: DTAs Can Be 'Force-Tuned' .)
Comcast is already using that technique to deliver Emergency Alert System (EAS) messages to DTAs, but acknowledged that the same capability could theoretically allow DTAs to work with the MSO's forthcoming Xfinity remote control application, which it demonstrated on an iPad at The Cable Show in May. As designed, that app uses an Internet backchannel to feed instructions to the cable headend, which forwards channel-change requests to the set-top box. (See To Xfinity... & Beyond!.)
But extending apps to DTAs using force-tuning is expected to get some attention from the FCC as it considers new CableCARD rules. The FCC has already awarded several waivers to DTAs with embedded security on the notion that they don't have any advanced capabilities. In its earlier comments, Comcast argued that force-tuning doesn't make DTAs function as interactive devices. (See FCC Floats 'Simple' Gateway, CableCARD Rules , FCC Believes in Evolution-ary DTAs and Huawei Gets Box Break at the FCC .)
Smith likewise argues that adding EBIF to a DTA doesn't change the limited capability of the device. "It is still a one-way box. It's doing no more than taking information and displaying it on the TV," he says. "To the extent that it's done in an EBIF environment doesn't change how you'd define this box in terms of the regulatory environment."
Still, he acknowledges that Evolution will likely have to wait for the FCC to have an opinion on the EBIF matter before its strategy can take on a larger role in the US market. However, there are no such regulatory questions to worry about in Mexico, so Evolution can proceed there if that's the path Cablemás decides to take.
Evolution is currently porting the EBIF user agent to run on DTA chipsets from Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Zoran Corp. (Nasdaq: ZRAN), and hopes to be ready for deployment by the first quarter of 2011. In the meantime, Evolution plans to show off its DTA EBIF handiwork in New Orleans at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Cable-Tec Expo in October.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable