In with the new
MediaOne's decision to buck the industry trend by not choosing a conditional access scheme based on either Scientific-Atlanta or General Instrument technology comes as both a breath of fresh air and a case of an MSO finally putting its money where its mouth is.
Instead of offering up the usual lip-service about wanting to open the market to a wider range of set-top manufacturers, MediaOne has the foresight and guts to actually do just that by giving the nod to Canal+ Technologies and its Mediaguard software. With a single stroke of a pen, MediaOne has legitimized Cable Television Laboratories' OpenCable project, which specifies a standardized digital set-top with a separate conditional access device, known as a "POD" (or "point of deployment" device). By disconnecting the conditional access from the set-top, cable operators are free to allow retail sale of the hardware, while closely controlling access to premium services via the POD.
Up until MediaOne's announcement, however, surprisingly little progress toward that goal had been made. In fact, it could be argued that the industry had done everything possible to scare off potential manufacturers. Pace Microsystems, a U.K.-based set-top manufacturer, is one such spurned suitor-after acquiring a technology license from GI, the company eventually pulled back after it failed to find a customer who was willing to use it as more than leverage to get a lower price from someone else.
For the industry's two leading set-top makers, the MediaOne/Canal+/Philips/ Divicom deal should come as a wake-up call. For although both General Instrument and Scientific-Atlanta have publicly pledged their support of an open standard, the two have done little to foster one. Even their "historic" agreement to share their analog secrets (remember the "Harmony" agreement?) was largely symbolic-because the all-important descrambling keys haven't even been exchanged with one another.
Bud Wonsiewicz, MediaOne's chief technical officer, and his staff should be commended for finally breaking the logjam that threatened to keep the cable industry beholden to just two major suppliers. With a true standard in place, the cable industry will soon find itself able to pick and choose from a variety of suppliers-of both PODs and set-tops.
Thanks to this watershed announcement, it's likely that five years from now, U.S. cable customers will be able to shop at electronics stores and mass merchandise outlets and choose from several different brands of set-tops. World-class manufacturers now have an open standard on which to build product. Then the fun begins, because I have a sneaking suspicion a wide variety of new and neat applications will find their way into the device.