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CMC Preps Partners for Enhanced TV

Jeff Baumgartner
2/23/2009
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Although major U.S. MSOs have big plans underway for "enhanced" TV (ETV) applications later this year, the Comcast Media Center (CMC) is trying to help smaller operators with fewer resources enjoy the fruits of EBIF (Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format) as well.

In its latest ETV-related move, the CMC has signed on three more operators -– Oregon's BendBroadband , MetroCast Cablevision , and Sunflower Broadband of Lawrence, Kan. -– as beta sites for HITS AxIS, a centralized, partner-driven platform for small and mid-sized MSOs. Metrocast serves pockets of Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. (See More MSOs Test 'HITS AxIS'.)

Those MSOs join Buckeye CableSystem , a Toledo, Ohio-based operator that signed up as a HITS AxIS guinea pig last summer. (See Buckeye First to Test 'HITS AxIS' .)

The CMC and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) introduced HITS AxIS last May with a handful of partners from the ITV technology ecosystem. (See CMC Plays Host to iTV, Four More Join 'HITS AxIS', Comcast Media Center Buffs Up for EBIF , and CMC Signs EBIF Partner.)

Although tru2way plays into the HITS AxIS plan, initially it's focusing on EBIF, a more basic CableLabs -specified enhanced TV platform that's compatible with all cable digital video set-tops, including millions of "thin-client" boxes with limited processing horsepower. (See Comcast, TWC Plan for EBIF.)

Early on, EBIF is expected to support simple polling applications that synch up with live programs, a few interactive advertising applications, and even some simple games. Based on recent demos, premium programmers such as Starz Entertainment LLC plan to use EBIF to direct viewers to their video-on-demand (VoD) libraries.

The Comcast Media Center does not yet have a specific date in mind for a full commercial launch of HITS AXiS, but it could happen sometime later this year.

"We want to make sure we're timing the rollout based on market receptivity," says Comcast Media Center chief operating officer Gary Traver. The CMC, he adds, hopes to get a better fix on that at the National Cable Television Cooperative Inc. (NCTC) Winter Educational Conference & Technology Showcase. That conference, kicking off today in Charlotte, N.C., caters to the needs of smaller MSOs.

"We are very intent on rolling this product out," Traver says.

In the meantime, the early, beta-stage HITS AXiS work will focus on "on-boarding," which includes EBIF compliance testing and inserting those apps into the cable environment. The tests will also determine how well they behave under heavier and heavier network loads.

ETV 'storefront' envisioned
When HITS AxIS becomes commercially available, likely later this year with broad rollouts in 2010, the CMC envisions offering MSOs an à la carte-like "storefront" of enhanced and interactive applications, rather than marketing pre-packaged bundles or foisting a one-size-fits-all offering on affiliates. That way, operators can evaluate and select the apps they believe make the most sense for their customers.

That approach "creates a competitive, open environment where the best applications rise to the top," Traver insists.

He declined to say how many apps are ready to roll through HITS AxIS, but acknowledged "it's not as many as we'd like. It's greater than one and less than 20." But he expects those numbers to rise steadily as the CMC and its partners port more apps and adapt them to the EBIF environment.

Some companies that have joined HITS AxIS in the early going include Alticast Corp. , BIAP Systems Inc. , Ensequence Inc. , itaas Inc. , Vidiom Systems Inc. , Zodiac Interactive , and TVWorks LLC , the iTV joint venture of Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Cox Communications Inc.

Small MSOs get 'impulse' PPV, more HD
Separately, the CMC and Motorola announced some headend upgrades that enable HITS Quick Take Plus cable affiliates to get access to the broader HITS Quantum programming service as well as "impulse" pay-per-view capabilities. (See CMC, Moto Juice Up 'HITS QT+' .)

HITS Quantum is a centralized content distribution system that serves up 280 linear digital video and audio services, including 21 hi-def channels.

HITS Quick Take Plus targets cable systems with up to 2,500 customers, though the "sweet spot" generally includes properties with "hundreds" of subscribers, a group that is particularly susceptible to competition from DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH).

"We're working hard so we're not stranding any operators," Traver says. "We think [this upgrade] is a very important element of their long-term viability."

He says the enhancements should be generally available by April.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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