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In Control

Fri, 08/31/2001 - 8:00pm
Angela Langowski, Associate Editor

Spurred by satellite operators, companies like TiVo and Microsoft, and consumers who reportedly love having total control over their television viewing habits, the race is on within the cable TV industry to add personal video recorder (PVR) functionality into cable subscribers' homes. The appeal of PVR functionality is simple: it allows viewers to pause, fast-forward and rewind live TV. In fact, everyone who owns a PVR and gets hooked on using it has called those features "compelling."

But the "how" of adding PVR functions in a cable network are complex. Even though cable operators are locked into hot competition with satellite operators for subscribers, they are still taking more time to test various PVR solutions before deciding on a single approach.

The solutions range from integrated set-tops like Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 8000; a sidecar box that attaches to the set-top like one manufactured by Keen PM; or a networked PVR system that resides in the headend, like those touted by nCUBE and Concurrent Computer Corp. Cable operators are looking for ways to take the best of ReplayTV, TiVo and similar companies and incorporate them into their own set-top boxes. But which approach is best? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one? And why do cable operators seem to be slow to deploy this service?

Henderson

"I can't speak for my brethren," says Jim Henderson, VP of corporate development for Charter Communications. "We would have deployed the stuff if we had the product to deploy. We see the capability it can provide. Out of all the stuff we're putting in the set-top box, PVR is the core."

PVR market

Stand-alone PVRs made by TiVo haven't been selling very well, according to numbers tracked by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Part of the problem is the box hasn't been well merchandised in stores, and consumers aren't sure what it offers, says Sean Wargo, senior industry analyst for the CEA.

The CEA projected 714,000 units would be sold this year, but the actual number is just 116,000 units, which includes boxes that go from the manufacturer to the dealer and doesn't just include retail. However, the organization expects sales to grow by the end of this year, spurred by increased interest in satellite and the ability to buy PVR functionality in satellite set-tops like EchoStar's DishPVR.

Part of the problem that's also hurting sales of the technology is that people are tied to their own cable boxes, says Wargo.

"We're a very strong advocate for opening up the cable set-top box market to other manufacturers coming in and selling to that space, but that hasn't quite happened yet," says Wargo. "We're relying on the cable operators to bundle in things like PVR, digital TV and other things that would happen much faster if it was open. There's a lot of criticism that (cable operators) are dragging their feet. CEA is one (group) that tends to aggressively go after the cable operator for dragging."

Set-top box plans

S-A’s Explorer 8000


The proponents for an integrated set-top box, which include TiVo, Replay and the set-top suppliers themselves, say the solution is to build storage into digital set-tops. S-A has invested a lot of money in the PVR technology with its Explorer 8000, which features a dual tuner so viewers can watch one channel and record another, and a 40-gigabyte hard drive. The company inked a deal last December with Time Warner Cable for 100,000 units. S-A is working on having the boxes ready by the end of this year.

"We think it will be a killer product," says Bob Van Orden, VP of product strategy for the company's subscriber networks unit. Scientific-Atlanta is licensing PVR technology for the box from companies like Keen PM.

Pioneer is developing the company's PVR set-top box, the Voyager 4000, which it plans to bring out next year, says Dan Ward, Pioneer's director of marketing. Part of the company's development includes looking at the players on the market offering the PVR technology like Replay and TiVo and working on the hardware side of it. The hardware is what enables PVR, says Tom Romero, Pioneer's product development manager.

"Putting the hard drive in the (PVR) application and two tuners—that's what enables PVR," he says. "Without a hard drive, you can't do PVR unless you use a sidecar or something else. Everyone is going to have their hands full putting in the hard drive and integrating it into the system."

That's because the hard drive is expensive and companies have to make sure they can use the hard drive for other applications, Romero says. Another issue is getting the PVR functionality integrated into the electronic program guide (EPG), he says.

TiVo print ad

Philips, which already makes a TiVo unit that's available on the retail market, is exploring the idea of taking the PVR functionality and moving it into the company's other set-top boxes. Part of the appeal of integrating PVR functionality into a set-top box is the fact that the price points for the product, like the hard drive, have recently come down, says Doug Rogers, business development manager for Philips Personal TV/TiVo product.

"As the cost continues to come down on the drive and some of the other components, you can anticipate it may make sense to integrate this selectively into other units, whether they are high-end display TVs or other devices," he says. "There is an awful lot of interest among cable providers. But I think the tendency from the public at large is to underestimate the kind of work and expertise that goes into launching a service, as well as maintaining that service."

Philips’ projection TV ad

Motorola is echoing other manufacturers by saying it's looking at PVR functionality as the "next big thing." Last May, Motorola and ReplayTV, which is a subsidiary of SONICBlue Inc., signed a licensing agreement to develop new digital set-top terminals with digital video recording (DVR) capabilities. ReplayTV's DVR technology will be integrated into Motorola's digital cable set-tops, reportedly by the end of this year, according to a press release issued by the company.

However, despite this announcement, Motorola is in discussions with a number of companies but can't announce anything definite, says Chris Seymour, Motorola's product manager for the DCT-2000.

Pace is pitching custom-built solutions for each operator and is not concentrating on just one solution, says David Novak, the company's director of marketing. Pace's next-generation set-top boxes will be integrated, he says. The company also believes there will be a hybrid model of PVR functionality that will incorporate a set-top and using the headend.

Last year, Pace announced a three-year contract to supply Comcast Cable with 350,000 digital interactive set-top boxes for both its Motorola and S-A based networks.

Sony Corp., which will supply Cablevision Systems Corp. with digital set-top boxes within the next couple of months, won't be adding PVR functionality to those devices, says Mike Fidler, Sony's SVP for the set-top box division. However, those boxes will be able to add that application later, he says. Sony certainly has the expertise–it manufactures one of TiVo's stand-alone boxes and provides set-tops to both DirecTV and EchoStar.

"The market is now starting to nurture PVRs," says Fidler. He sees more operators rushing into the PVR arena and more PVR products being deployed on the consumer side in the next two years.

Samsung's entry into the PVR market is a set-top it is developing for AOLTV service that could either work in conjunction with existing cable set-tops or replace them. Samsung expects the new PVR set-tops to hit retail this spring.

Sidecar PVR solution

Keen PM is starting to make a splash with its TV4Me PVR software and a SideCar PVR peripheral, which the company recently trademarked.

Keen's sidecar will be linked to set-tops via existing universal serial bus or serial ports, and houses a graphical user interface that leverages the cable operator's brand.

Kalsow

A differentiator for the company is that the sidecar product is designed to operate in an OpenCable environment and is also designed to leverage the current cable infrastructure, says Greg Kalsow, Keen's vice president of marketing.

The company decided two years ago not to go with a retail model for its product but to embrace a service provider subsidized model instead so that subscribers could have one monthly bill with their cable service, he says.

Opponents of "sidecars" say cost is a hurdle to deploying this unit, and MSOs would also have to overcome the technical complexity of hooking two boxes together. Kalsow pooh-poohs these criticisms by saying the sidecar is a solution for the already installed base of digital set-top boxes that are already out there, and that a single box wouldn't address all the customers in that space.

"Cable operators have to make that choice, and they run the risk of losing their customers to satellite because those customers are seeking PVR functionality," he says.

CacheVision Inc., a joint venture between consumer-electronics manufacturer Thomson Multimedia and hard-drive maker Seagate Technology Inc., is also working on complementary PVR technology for cable boxes as well as other PVR-enabled technology.

Keen Sidecar


The mission of the company, which was formed last July, is to help provide digital market storage for personal entertainment solutions, says Richard Johnson, CacheVision's president/CEO.

"The trend evolving in PVR is it is moving from a service to a feature," he says. "It is also becoming more difficult for PVR companies to interest other companies in paying a monthly service fee."

The products the company is developing that incorporate PVR technology fall into four categories: 1) A component level product; 2) A PVR appliance that has a personal media recording function enabling these services at a system level; 3) A server component tied back to the client; and 4) The coupling of a client/server component.

"When we looked at personalization, we had to solve the problem of components and the stacks between the client and network server," says Johnson.

CacheVision and Keen both have parent companies that manufacture hard drives, which are an important part of PVR functionality.

Western Digital, Keen's parent, is making the hard drive for Microsoft's upcoming XBox gaming console.

Seagate just announced Korean consumer electronics manufacturer DMT would be using its 40-gigabyte U series hard drive in a digital satellite set-top box with PVR functionality.

Network-based PVR solutions

While most people envison PVRs as a set-top function, there are others who see it better suited higher up in the network. Concurrent and nCUBE Corp. are developing network-based PVR products that would work with existing VOD systems.

An argument for centralizing storage into the network (headend or hub) is that more people can share more storage and the cost as well. Opponents say intellectual property is an issue with these solutions.

nCUBE Corp. unveiled its nPVR solution last June. The system uses the company's n4 streaming media appliance to enable cable operators to store a week's worth of programming for up to 200 channels. Network-based PVR systems allow cable operators the ability to control what channels or programs they wish to store and how long that storage should last, says Dan Sheeran, nCUBE's SVP of worldwide sales and marketing.

Concurrent’s headend-based PVR system diagram


Concurrent has tested its personal video channel technology at Time Warner's Oceanic Cable Division. Last year, the system allowed Time Warner's Hawaii-based subscribers to tune into two prize fights at their convenience. The fights, which were broadcast in the afternoon in Hawaii, were loaded onto Concurrent's MediaHawk server and made available during primetime for subscribers.

Chism

Cable operators are taking notice of this technology. A number of cable operators have started asking Concurrent how this will scale and how many broadcast streams can be "ingested" into the video server and be played out, says Bob Chism, Concurrent's VP of research and development.

Chism tested a model with a single rack of equipment that would enable the operator to ingest 200 channels of broadcast signals with four racks of equipment, and more than 4,000 video streams could be made available.

The intellectual property issue will be dealt with by the MSO, he says. The system is designed so that the cable operator can make the selection of channels and programming he wants to offer. He can also control content that way and see what viewers watch and keep track of paying for the content.

And the winner is?

DTV Dish Combo box

So where do cable operators stand in their mission to deploy PVR functionality? Keen's Kalso says two MSOs have signed on to field test the company's sidecar, and two others are in the process of signing contracts.

AT&T Broadband, Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp. have already conducted PVR tests with ReplayTV's stand-alone product. Charter says it is looking at sidecar products manufactured by Keen, CacheVision, Replay and TiVo. Like other MSOs, Charter isn't limiting itself to one solution.

The MSO is also looking at integrated set-top solutions by Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola, Henderson says, but the company thinks it will deploy S-A's Explorer 8000 more quickly than Motorola's solution, because Motorola hasn't gone to the level of integration that S-A has. The company is also looking at headend-based solutions.

"We have a lot of stuff that's on the verge of coming out in the next 12 months that nobody else will be able to copy," he promises.

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