Intel Goes Inside Cable... Again

Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC)'s on-and-off courting of the cable industry was apparently back on again Monday when it signed the OpenCable Platform Agreement, an accord that will give the chip giant the green light to develop a range of system-on-a-chip (SOC) products that have a keen eye toward premium digital cable services and applications.

Signing on the dotted line gives Intel the OK to support a uniform digital TV and set-top middleware platform specified by CableLabs . Historically, it's been referred to as the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), but that terminology apparently is being phased out in favor of the OpenCable Platform. (See Another Closing, Another Show.)

Intel said the agreement will allow it to develop OpenCable-capable chips for digital televisions, set-tops, digital media recorders, and other "networked" devices outfitted to run apps delivered by cable operators, consumer electronics companies, networks, and other software developers. In addition to supporting premium cable services and interactive apps like video-on-demand, resulting devices will also support the CableCARD, a removable security module central to the July 1, 2007, government-mandated ban on set-tops with integrated security. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven'.)

The agreement marks Intel's firm support for OpenCable, but also its latest attempt to crack the U.S. cable CPE market. But it's been a long time between moves. In 2001, it inked a home networking trial with Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) back when Intel was getting its "AnyPoint" product line off the ground. Before Docsis came about, Intel was central to a proprietary cable modem design, also in collaboration with Comcast.

Intel spokesman Bill Kircos said support for the OpenCable platform followed an announcement in April that Intel would develop a new family of CE chips that integrate more processing functions, including A/V graphics support, into a single chip. He added that the new chips will also be used inside a "future set-top box device" from Comcast.

"Comcast is committed to working with Intel to bring one or more Intel SOC-based digital set-top boxes to market in the next two years," Comcast EVP and Chief Technology Officer Tony Werner said in a statement.

Intel and Comcast did not elaborate on those plans, but they certainly could involve the MSO's Residential Network Gateway (RNG) project, which looks to produce a number of set-top models based on an "open" hardware standard.

On May 1, during the MSO's analyst's day, Comcast EVP of National Engineering and Technology Operations John Schanz described the baseline capabilities and timelines for the initial set of models in the RGN family -- the 100, 200, and 1000. (See table.)

Table 1: All in the 'RNG' Family
RNG 100 RNG 200 RGN 1000
Mass Market HD-DVR Converged CPE
2008 2007 2009
Standard-Def Television HDTV HDTV
Source: Comcast Corp.

Separately, Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and CableLabs announced a "collaborative relationship" to explore the development of a system that will enable two-way digital cable services to be delivered to PCs. Microsoft is already involved in a one-way version, dubbed the OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver (OCUR), which has been the subject of an early, sub-par review. (See OCUR Gets Low Marks.)

Evidence of the two-way, Bidirectional OpenCable Receiver (BOCR) emerged the CableNET exhibit at May's The Cable Show in Las Vegas, but, given its early stages, specific details about the project have been hard to come by. (See Cable Developing Two-Way PCTV Play .)

Both announcements were made Monday during an "OpenCable Showcase" event held at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) headquarters in Washington, D.C. More than 20 exhibitors showed off interactive, two-way "cable-ready" devices and services that leverage the OpenCable platform.

Among the demos, Microsoft showed OCUR running on a Windows Vista Media Center PC and delivering HD content to a monitor as well as via an Xbox 360 gaming console hooked to a Media Center Extender unit.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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