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CE straightjacket for cable

Sat, 07/31/1999 - 8:00pm
Walter Ciciora
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By Walter Ciciora If cable is tied to a reluctance to keep up with technology, our hands become tied.

Several things happened recently which caused me to pause and wonder about where we are headed with cable set-top boxes. Is the consumer electronics model being imposed on cable in a manner that will stifle our video future?

Moore's Law

In early June, I was at the Montreux Television Symposium in Switzerland attending a workshop on Electronic Program Guides. A representative from one of the world's largest consumer electronics manufacturers angrily stated that he was disappointed in the panel because it "obviously" wanted to promote a future which always included set-top boxes. He claimed the panelists were opposing standards and were against things built into TVs and other consumer electronics. He claimed that the panel just wanted him to make monitors, and that this would kill his business. I offered the opinion that there would be set-tops as long as technology continues to evolve and consumer electronics products are reliable and have a long life. The only way to stop set-top boxes is to freeze the application of technology. Because technology itself is not subject to freezing, only onerous regulation can freeze the application of technology.

Our technology is advancing largely because of Moore's Law. Gordon Moore of Intel made the observation a couple of decades ago that every 18 to 24 months, the number of digital transistors that can be purchased for a given price approximately doubles. Another way of looking at this is that in the same time period, a given number of digital transistors approximately halves in price. This has led to our being able to afford to put millions of transistors in consumer electronics products and set-tops. We do not yet see the end of Moore's Law, so the things we can do in set-tops will become more complex.

The Symposium also featured sessions relating to the Internet. A paper by a representative of Com21 included a graph of the growth of the number of Internet hosts (computers) vs. time. The first point plotted was in 1991, and there were only 376,000 hosts that year. In 1993, there were fewer than two million Internet hosts. Now, there are more than 50 million, and the curve is sharply pointed upward.

Meanwhile, in the regulatory arena, one of the most controversial issues is whether cable's high-speed modem capabilities will be forced open to Internet service providers (ISPs). The recent decision in the U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore. is a source of great concern.

On my desk as I write this are the May 1999 IEEE Transactions on Consumer Electronics and the June 1999 IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems for Video Technology. Both issues have papers on video compression technologies. Some cover MPEG, but not all. There are papers on fractal encoding, vector quantization, wavelet video coding, and more. Don't these guys know that the game is over? It's all the discrete cosine transform (DCT) Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG-2) standard. Or is it? Well, it is for the Advanced Television Systems Committee's (ATSC's) Broadcast Digital Television standard. But what about the Internet and cable? In the good old days, before it was mandated that navigation devices had to be available at retail with removable security modules, the cable operator could choose the current best technology and put set-tops in the homes of his subscribers. All subs then had simultaneous access to the new technology. No one was disenfranchised. No one's consumer electronics equipment was made obsolete.

A possible disadvantage is that subscribers could not own the set-top box. But is that really a disadvantage? Who is disadvantaged by this? Careful analysis suggests that only the retailer is missing out.

The only way to facilitate the retail purchase of set-top boxes is to freeze the application of technology with standards. While software downloading helps track the advancement of technology for awhile, it doesn't solve the problem. Just as with personal computers, processors become more powerful, memory becomes cheaper and software expands.

There is a significant hazard in all of this for cable. If the same folks who brought you the regulations that require you to freeze your technology so that subscribers can purchase the set-top box at retail also require you to open up your system to ISPs, the danger is immense. The ISPs serve computer-oriented folks who are predisposed to spend money chasing the latest hardware and software. They are not locked down to MPEG or any other technology. If they start reading these papers about fractals, vector quantization, wavelets, etc., they can try out these approaches to video compression and develop powerful entertainment services on the Internet.

The combination of high-speed data transmission and the next advances in video compression can be very powerful. If cable is tied to the consumer electronics model of standards, consumer ownership, and a reluctance to keep up with the latest technology, our hands become tied. If simultaneously, we are forced to give access to an industry which is not similarly constrained, the competitive disadvantage will be enormous. Consumers will have access to video-on-demand via the Internet over our infrastructure and outside our ability to utilize advanced technologies to compete.

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