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PCDTV cards: Friend or foe to cable?

Thu, 11/30/2000 - 7:00pm
James Careless
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There appears to be little to be lost by cable TV supporting PCDTV cards, and much to gain

Pop quiz: Which room in American homes will likely welcome the first wave of digital television (DTV) sets? Need a hint? It's not likely to be the living room. Why not? Because conventional wide-screen DTV sets currently cost $3,000 or more, and most consumers aren't going to be buying one anytime soon.

However, those with PCs can afford to spend a few hundred bucks for a "PCDTV card" made by companies like Hauppauge Digital and BroadLogic Network Technologies. These cards allow users to receive and watch DTV broadcasts on a PC monitor.

In fact, both the Hauppauge WinTV-D and the BroadLogic TerraCast DTA-100 PCDTV cards can receive both traditional analog NTSC signals and all 18 ATSC video formats. We're talking both HDTV and SDTV here—all on the PC located in the study or rec room. Or bedroom. Or home office. Or basement. Or maybe even the living room, if you're one of the few people who locate their PC near the couch.

To say the least, PCDTV cards are a cheap entry point for people who want to see HDTV now. In addition, although they don't offer the same screen size as a 52-inch HDTV floor model, these cards still offer top-quality video, thanks to the SVGA displays attached to most home PCs.

Moreover, if the monitor is large enough, the picture size offered by the PC can be pretty reasonable. That's compounded by the fact that most people sit pretty close to their PC monitors, which compensates for much of the size differential between them and traditional TVs.

But will people really get a taste of HDTV on their PCs? Or is this just a foolish pipe dream?

Microsoft doesn't think it is. Neither does Intel. That's why both companies have joined with Hauppauge, BroadLogic, iBlast Networks, Pinnacle Systems, and eight others to create the PC DTV Promoters Group (www.pcdtv.com). According to a joint press release issued in August, the consortium aims "to help raise awareness of the PC as the ideal platform for receiving Enhanced Digital Television programming, HDTV and high-bandwidth datacasting services."

If that isn't enough to convince skeptics that PCDTV cards make business sense, then perhaps the following two words will: Crystal Radio.

Back in the 1920s when radio was just being launched, a standard battery-powered set—using A, B, and C batteries—cost more than the average American household could easily afford. That's why cash-conscious consumers instead built their own unpowered crystal radio sets for just pennies.

Granted, the sound levels produced by these crystal sets were poor—just a whisper in the head sets, as the set's diode rectified the on-air signal into audio. But still, the signal was there, and if you put the headsets inside a glass bowl, the sound was amplified so everyone could hear it.

Rolling along, but slowly

In the U.S., DTV roll-out is being driven by TV broadcasters. As of late October, 159 stations were on air broadcasting ATSC signals in 55 markets, according to the National Association of Broadcasters. So, if it's reasonable to assume that many people will first see DTV over their PCs, what does this means for the U.S. cable TV industry? Will the proliferation of PCDTV cards draw viewers away from their cabled TV sets? Or do PCDTV cards offer an opportunity for the cable TV industry that shouldn't be missed?

CableLabs President and CEO Dick Green isn't too worried about losing viewers to PCs, for a few good reasons. First, for viewers to use them to bypass cable TV, they'll have to connect these cards to DTV antennas. That's more hassle and expense than most will be willing to go to, he wagers.

Second, Green notes that, despite the 159 DTV stations already on air, much of the United States still doesn't have access to over-the-air DTV. In fact, "here in Denver, there is no digital broadcasting," he says.

Green also wonders why anyone would buy a one-way PCDTV receiver card, when they can already get full-motion video from (and to!) the Web using a high-speed cable modem. "Is this (PCDTV card) going to be attractive to a consumer when there's a broadband connection that's capable of 40 megabits coming in to the desk?," he asks.

Then there's the notion that Americans will sit and watch DTV on their PCs. "Three or four years ago, there was this huge claim on the part of the PC industry that PCs would become television sets," says Green. "So far, that has been a rather slow-developing market."

Finally, Green just doesn't buy the crystal radio argument. "Clearly, high definition is a large-screen medium, and PCs are not known for their large-screen attributes," he says. Without this, Green doesn't see why PCDTV cards would sell. "The big question in our mind is [not] 'what market does this serve?', but 'what demanding need on the part of consumers does this serve that isn't better served by other means'," he says. "Of course, we would put cable in the forefront of the 'other means'."

Plug and play

Green isn't alone in his views. Hauppauge Digital Vice President of Marketing Ken Plotkin also says, "I don't think that the digital TV cards will have an impact on the cable TV industry." His comments are echoed by Philippe Cassereau, vice president of BroadLogic's digital TV products group.

To make it unanimous, Jim Norsworthy, chief technology officer at Microtune, a company that builds RF tuners and transceivers for broadband communications devices, including DOCSIS cable modems and PCDTV cards, says: "It is definitely not a threat to cable. It's a means of growing its presence."

That's because PCDTV cards aren't just designed to connect to terrestrial antennas. They can also be plugged into cable TV systems as well. In fact, both the WinTV-D and the TerraCast DTA-100 offer two coaxial connections, for attaching cable TV and antenna feeds at the same time. So these same cards that receive terrestrial DTV broadcasts can also receive and decode those offered by cable TV.

Of course, that's assuming that cable TV MSOs offer digital television—not just digital cable—in order to serve PCDTV cards.

Jim Chiddix, Time Warner Cable's CTO, says "We're already highly motivated to offer high definition, and we are offering it wherever we can." This includes HD broadcasts from the major networks where available, plus HDTV programming from HBO and Showtime.

"What's more, we're getting digital set-top boxes from our vendors which we're making available to our customers at no additional charge if they've got an HDTV set," Chiddix adds. "So if you're an HBO subscriber and you've got an HDTV set, instead of a regular digital set-top, we'll give you an HD-enabled set-top box."

Chiddix didn't say if this freebie would extend to Time Warner subscribers using PCDTV cards. However, whether it does or not, the fact remains that there's content out there on cable TV that can be ported to these cards. In turn, such porting will inevitably convince some people to break the bank and buy their own HDTV receivers. The result: cable TV can help move DTV into American households.

Opportunity recognized?

So has cable TV recognized this new sales opportunity? "It's hard to tell," says Microtune's Norsworthy. Certainly CableLabs' Green and Time Warner's Chiddix aren't wildly enthused by PCDTV cards. As Norsworthy observes, "DTV is rolling out so slowly, and cable is already there and moving quickly. You would think the access device could logically connect to cable first."

There appears to be little to be lost by cable TV supporting PCDTV cards, and much to gain. In fact, by actively encouraging the deployment of PCDTV cards—they could be promoted wherever cable modems are sold, for instance—MSOs could gain a competitive edge over satellite television and over-the-air broadcasters.

After all, despite all the technical hiccups, DTV is coming to American households. Why shouldn't cable TV take advantage of this fact, by identifying itself with affordable technology that can make this happen now, rather than later?

E-mail: james@tjtdesign.com

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