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OpenCable closing in on a standard

Sat, 10/31/1998 - 7:00pm
Michael Lafferty, Associate Editor
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Laurie Schwartz

Just like cable modems, the key to an interoperable, retail-available digital set-top is a standard to which manufacturers around the world can build. And just like cable modems, the digital set-top standard has made incredible progress in a short amount of time.

It was only a year ago that CableLabs' Executive Committee officially stepped on the gas and put the "OpenCable" standardization effort on the fast track. This collective "pedal-to-the-metal" initiative followed five months of preliminary work that involved ground-breaking discussions between cable industry professionals and top executives from the computer industry.

In July 1997, a request for information was issued to leading companies in the computer and consumer electronics industries. Twenty-three companies responded with enough consensus that by November 1997, the Executive Committee had decided on some key elements and was ready to engage warp engines and explore worlds of cooperation the industry had never seen before.

Now, says Laurie Schwartz, director of advanced platforms and services at CableLabs, as the OpenCable effort closes in on a final specification, cooperation and participation is about to pay off for all concerned. "We have more than 250 companies registered on the Web site (www.opencable.com) to review and provide comments on documents. More directly, I would say (we have) probably about 50 companies actively involved day-to-day in resolving issues. I think it's been probably one of the best demonstrations of consumer electronics and cable working together to solve a problem."

This past May, the first draft specs were released to the vendor community for review and comment. This included documents outlining both service and functional requirements. Although changes are still being made, Schwartz says the functional requirements "are primarily complete." Schwartz describes these as device specifications that detail "the minimum requirements to get the OpenCable (certification) sticker."

CableLabs members have made considerable progress in defining the software architecture and developing a process for defining the remaining open application programming interfaces (APIs). They are also standardizing on an open middleware architecture (see related story on page 44) where interactive services will be implemented using existing open Internet specifications, including HTML, CGI, JavaScript, and other popular plug-ins.

"We're making good progress on software," says Schwartz, "which is critical. But, we don't expect to have it completed until probably first quarter (of 1999)." That small delay, says Schwartz, shouldn't delay the release of an overall definitive OpenCable spec by the end of this year. "Because of the way the functional requirements are structured," explains Schwartz, "we've already set benchmark performance requirements, which is what they (CE and set-top manufacturers) really want. So, they can go ahead and do their design to meet those benchmark requirements and I don't think the software itself will hold up their design."

Schwartz reports progress has also been made on the high definition (HD) interface. It will allow OpenCable set-tops to deliver the myriad HD formats broadcasters have decided to transmit. She says a draft was finished "with a lot of help of a couple of key consumer electronic manufacturers" and passed onto CEMA (the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association) in the beginning of October. Initial response has been good, she says.

Schwartz believes new technology for HDTV will slowly evolve. "It looks like there are going to be sort of three phases for HD," says Schwartz. "There will (probably be a) component analog/digital set-top box which will decode all formats and put it out over a component analog interface. It (will) work with some of the TVs, but not all of them. So it's not optimal."

The second phase would be the IEEE 1394 digital interface that she estimates will probably be available in the late 1999 time frame. And the final phase, says Schwartz, is a digital cable-ready TV which doesn't need any kind of interface. It has all the functionality of OpenCable built into it.

It's at this third phase that many hope and predict OpenCable functionality will migrate to a family of devices including not only televisions, but VCRs, DVD players and personal computer cards.

Another key factor in the OpenCable spec, security, is actually ahead of schedule, says Schwartz. "We have made significant progress on probably the biggest key to OpenCable success, which is the point of deployment (POD) security module," she says (see sidebar). "We finished our draft, which went through member and vendor review, three months ahead of schedule according to what we had promised the FCC.

"We gave it to the SCTE for consideration. There are four subcommittees working on resolving some final issues. The goal is to have it finalized and balloted, and hopefully approved, by the end of the year."

The security issue is not only intricate technically, but is further complicated by regulation. The FCC has ruled that operators must strip out resident security components from set-tops by July 1, 2000 and banned integrated boxes (with resident security) whether they're leased or sold at retail by January 1, 2005.

"The July 2000 requirement," explains Schwartz, "is that cable operators have a (security) card available so that when consumers buy a box at retail, you get the module from the cable operator and stick it in the back. It's a PCMCIA card, so it's like the little memory cards that go in your PC."

One of the few key sticking points at this juncture, says Schwartz, is the issue of copy protection for the content that will be traveling through the advanced digital set-tops. "It's (all about) licensing and what it's going to cost. It's more of a business issue. But finding a solution that's cost-effective and will do the job and meet the MPAA's desires is tough."

Will the OpenCable spec be essentially finished by the upcoming Western Show? "Oh, yeah. I think we have to if we're going to have product in 1999," says Schwartz. "I think ideally the CE guys would love to see televisions with that interface on it for Christmas 1999.

"But, at the same time, we're engaging in half-day sessions with each consumer electronic manufacturer to just talk about retail strategy and what they're doing. I think for maybe the first time, we're really listening to these guys. And that's good. So, we're really pushing the limits here for everyone."

e-mail: mclaffrt@aol.com

 

What's a POD?

As part of a wider ruling on set-tops, the FCC has mandated that cable operators cease purchasing set-tops with embedded security systems by July 2000. That ruling set off a flurry of activity within the cable industry, aimed at designing and deploying a removable "module" that performs security functions related to digital set-tops.

The module has since become known as a "POD" for "point of deployment" module. The goal is to develop a PCMCIA-sized module that effectively splits the functions of the security module from the set-top (or other) host.

An initial draft spec issued through the SCTE is now being re-tooled to bring it in harmony with input provided by consumer electronics manufacturers.

Some of the issues still being negotiated, yet appear close to resolution, involve how emergency alert signals are handled and how other applications (e.g. VOD, PPV, etc.) are split between the module and the host device. Those decisions are important because they impact cost, security and complexity of the module.

So far, it appears that POD will be kept "simple," so that most of the applications and functionality will reside in the host. That will allow different vendors to have distinct "looks" through on-screen messages, guides, etc. Vendors that build both set-tops and TV receivers could conceivably use the same software in both devices.

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