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Connecting America

Fri, 05/31/2002 - 8:00pm
Staff

Although attendance was down about 30 percent versus last year, the people who did make the pilgrimage to New Orleans for the 2002 National Show were drawn to a spate of newly-minted advanced boxes and media centers.

Top set-top makers such as Motorola Broadband, Scientific-Atlanta, Pioneer and Pace rolled-out high definition television-capable set-tops to help the top-10 U.S. MSOs gear up to support the "voluntary" digital television plan recently forwarded by FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

The show also saw the entrance of Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 8000, a digital set-top that touts integrated digital video recorder functionality.

Still, the visible end-game for the cable digital set-top world appears to revolve around new media centers that are designed to share bandwidth, services and applications with multiple TVs in a given household. Baseline media centers and less expensive extension devices created by the triad of Motorola, Digeo Inc. and Charter Communications drew a big crowd on the floor, as show-goers gawked over their capabilities. The Pace-Ucentric combination also impressed.

While the new breed of gear certainly appears to have promise, costs and pricing remain the big questions. The other pressing query (will MSOs other than Charter buy into the multiple-TV/media center concept?) should be answered by next year's Chicago confab.

Media centers and gateways

On the day Motorola Broadband paused to celebrate the shipment of digital set-top No. 20 million, the company also looked further ahead with its new home theater box and a new breed of media centers. To mark the occasion, Motorola presented Insight Communications CEO and NCTA Chairman Michael Willner with a trophy and a special-edition silver DCT-2000 digital set-top. Motorola Broadband, which merged with General Instrument Corp. in 2000, shipped its one-millionth digital set-top in 1998, and hit the 10 million mark in 2000.

Looking further ahead, Motorola Broadband also showcased the Broadband Media Center 8000 "companion" box and the stand-alone BMC 9000, which were developed in partnership with Digeo Inc. and Charter Communications. The BMC 8000 is designed to sync up with legacy "thin-client" boxes to offer digital video recording, voice and interactive services. Charter expects to deploy that box before the end of the year. The stand-alone BMC 9000 box will offer DVR, digital music and games, and link up to less expensive extension modules via the use of multiple tuners and home networking technologies. Digeo agreed to merge with Moxi Digital Inc. earlier this year.

Linked to activities surrounding the BMC-series boxes, Digeo bowed its Moxi platform, a licensable hardware reference design and a suite of advanced digital services.

Charter also agreed to deploy an undisclosed number of Motorola Broadband's new DCP501 home theater boxes in select markets by the end of the second quarter of 2002, becoming the first MSO to commit to the platform. The DCP501 features a DVD/CD/MP3 player, digital amplifier with 5 x 100 watts per channel, an AM/FM stereo receiver and an integrated DCT-2000 digital set-top.

Pace Micro Technology plc and Philips' semiconductor division agreed to develop a system using the 802.11b wireless standard for distribution of multiple video streams within a wireless home network. The two companies say they will also explore the use of other connectivity technologies.

Pace brings to the partnership the Pace Home Media Center (PHMC), which uses the digital home gateway as the port for interactive communications and content distribution. It enables electronic devices to link with each other in and around the home through the use of existing wiring, or wirelessly via 802.11b to realize a "no additional wires" approach.

The PHMC also enables communication with the outside world via any digital two-way platform, according to the company. The system can support simultaneous viewing on multiple screens, networked personal video recording capabilities, Internet browsing, multiple format decoding and other applications.

Philips brings to the table its connectivity, digital video, security and identification technology, with its Nexperia Home Entertainment Engine (HEE), designed for use in advanced set-tops, digital consumer systems and networked applications. With the power and integrated architecture of the Nexperia technology, the Pace HMC can accommodate and process all different forms of digital content, according to the two companies.

Cox Communications is the second major cable operator to publicly announce its support of Scientific-Atlanta's Explorer 8000 home entertainment server. Cox has already committed to purchase the device to provide personal video recorder (PVR) services to its customers.

Using the new box, consumers will be able to pause live TV, record one channel while watching another, record two channels simultaneously, and view picture-in-picture (PIP) on any television set. The PVR server will be powered by an 80-gigabyte hard drive and will be capable of recording up to 50 hours of programming without the need for a phone line. It will also be capable of sharing entertainment content throughout the home, including video, music and digital images.

Motorola Inc. Broadband Communications Sector debuted its SURFboard SBG1000 cable modem gateway, which company officials say is the first combination high-speed cable modem router with five-port Ethernet switch and wireless home gateway. A plug-and-play DOCSIS 1.1-based cable modem and gateway, the SBG1000 utilizes a five-port 10/100 Base-T switch and 802.11b wireless technology for home networking.

The product is suited for the needs of the home user, as well as the SOHO (small office/home office) and SME (small and medium enterprise) environments.

The SBG1000 has a built-in SURFboard cable modem with an integrated five-port 10/100Base-T switch and 802.11b wireless access point technology. With the SBG1000, broadband subscribers can use their existing connection to securely share Internet access and network multiple PCs. Wireless users can move from room to room–to surf the 'Net, share files, send e-mails, share MP3 music or media files, play interactive games, etc.– without losing the connection.

Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc. is set to go into production with its first cable modem-based home gateway device, which combines a DOCSIS 1.0/1.1 compliant modem, router-gateway, and wireless base station (802.11b compliant) in one unit. The device also allows for wired networking over a traditional Ethernet connection to a PC.

The gateway device maintains data privacy with 40/128 bit WEP encryption and triple DES. The platform bridges devices on the home network, including PCs, printers, set-top boxes and cameras, to the external networks and their services.

High definition and digital television

A number of vendors stepped up to assist MSOs with their rollouts of high definition television. Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc. introduced the Voyager 3511HD set-top box, designed to meet the demand for HDTV. The company showed the set-top, along with Pioneer Digital Technologies Inc.'s Passport 3.0 Navigation Suite, at the National Show.

The new set-top, which will begin shipping late this year, offers high definition decoding capabilities, advanced dual processing power, flexible memory configurations of up to 32 MB of SDRAM memory, a built-in ATSC digital decoder and video outputs that can pass native 1080i signals to a video display, or downconvert those signals based on display limitations.

Pace Micro Technology debuted its 550 HD home gateway. The unit provides secured digital connections, and resolution flexibility for content and display devices that is cost-effective for operators, according to Pace.

The Pace 550 HD features DVI 1.0 and IEEE 1394-standards-based, secure digital connections for digital television monitors and consumer peripheral devices. The unit's hardware and software architecture have been specifically designed to enable the secure delivery of both SDTV and HDTV content, according to the company.

Scientific-Atlanta said that in its first full quarter of volume shipments, more than 38,000 of its Explorer 3100HD digital interactive set-tops were delivered to six North American cable operators in an attempt to meet the expected consumer demand for HDTV. The Explorer 3100HD digital interactive set-top is designed to deliver both high definition and interactive TV services such as VOD and SVOD through a single device.

S-A also announced its inaugural shipment of its new Explorer 8000 home entertainment servers for customer trials.

Integration of core routing with video grooming capabilities for new digital TV (DTV) services is behind a recent collaboration between BigBand Networks and Triveni Digital. Going forward, cable operators will be looking hard at solutions to deliver off-air DTV broadcasts; the two companies hope to develop a standards-compliant platform that can get operators one step closer.

The deal really centers on the interoperability and technical combination of product solutions currently in each provider's stable. The collaboration will initially focus on combining the capabilities of BigBand's Broadband Multimedia-Service Router (BMR) with Triveni's ATSC-Cable StreamBridge metadata groomer.

French consumer electronics supplier Thomson is broadening its broadband device lineup as part of a new initiative to more strongly court cable MSOs. Unveiled at the National Show, the initiative focuses on broadband cable hardware, software and services to cover a wide range of content development, access and distribution.

Thomson's RCA brand has become one of the leading names in retail cable modem sales, and it also has a steady consumer audio and video business. Part of the new initiative expands beyond modems to devices that deliver voice-over-IP services, digital and high-definition video and interactive services, including video-on-demand.

It also will cover the systems to produce the content, including software, studio cameras and film imaging, processing, distribution and post-production. Part of the initiative also includes a plan to accelerate high-definition television rollout, starting with better coordination with retailers and an advertising push for a new line of high-definition monitors set to debut this year. Following that, Thomson will also work with MSOs to coordinate HD rollouts to complement the cable industry's recent announcement of an HD deployment plan.

Thomson has a line of cable consumer premise equipment, including new VoIP and DOCSIS 1.1 wireless gateway units, and a new high-definition TV set-top gateway to pair with RCA HD television sets.

iTV and VOD

Interactive TV came sharply into focus at the Show, as companies announced partnerships on content, content delivery, system integration, hardware, software and more.

In one example of that, Time Warner Cable has begun deploying N2 Broadband's MediaPoint Business Management System across multiple TWC divisions in the U.S.

N2 Broadband's MediaPoint BMS is an open standards-based hardware and software system that receives video-on-demand content and transfers it to cable system servers for delivery to consumers. N2 also provides operators an asset management system to track and display VOD content.

The MediaPoint BMS is based on the Interactive Services Architecture (ISA), an open standard developed jointly by N2 Broadband and Time Warner Cable.

AT&T Broadband tapped pay-per-view and video-on-demand provider iN Demand to provide it with VOD content throughout its cable systems, beginning this summer in Atlanta and Los Angeles. AT&T is transitioning from the Diva platform to iN Demand as a result of Diva's decision to phase out of the content licensing business to focus on software technology.

The company will supply AT&T with movies, select library titles and cable programming. AT&T is the fourth major MSO to strike a deal with iN Demand, joining Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and Cox Communications.

Insight Communications tapped TVN Entertainment Corp. under a five-year deal to fill the VOD void left by Diva. TVN will handle Insight's VOD needs linked to programming, transport and asset management via TVN components such as its proprietary ADONISS platform and SST (secure satellite transmission) system.

Additionally, TVN will deploy docking stations to Insight headends and encode and archive on-demand content. Insight will tap into TVN's Affiliate Remote Interface, which is designed to enable VOD affiliates to view and manipulate their assets and collect diagnostic and usage data anywhere in a particular system via a Web-based interface.

Interactive TV software provider MetaTV announced an integration deal with video-on-demand server and software provider SeaChange International. MetaTV, which has a development deal with Cox Communications Inc., develops software for operators that allows MSOs to offer interactive advertising and custom-branded virtual channels.

MetaTV said virtual channels examples include do-it-yourself, cooking, health and fitness; sports and entertainment segments and product advertising.

SeaChange International also introduced personal video recording (PVR) capabilities as an extension of its VOD system. PVR capability will allow operators to cost-effectively deploy customized and free tiers of on-demand programming supported by targeted advertising, according to the company.

Adelphia Communications will power its sports-on-demand service with SeaChange's PVR capabilities. Having successfully completed tests of PVR earlier this month with Buffalo Sabres games on-demand, Adelphia is preparing to add sports-on-demand to its digital service roster.

Internet protocol VOD outlet Intertainer cut a deal with PanAmSat to distribute content to its cable customers via satellite. The deal calls for the two companies to mesh satellite delivery with Intertainer's Demand E.S.P. video delivery platform. PanAmSat's VODcast pitcher-catcher delivery scheme, developed by SeaChange International Inc., can funnel content directly into video servers from vendors using standard formats. In doing so, they will eliminate the need to manually input Intertainer content at the cable headend.

Using a Web-based interface, MSOs and programmers will be able to tap into the delivery system and monitor the status of content as it travels from the satellite system to headends. They can also write new program titles, delete content, alter programming for individual systems and track usage.

Intertainer has forged deals with Adelphia Communications and Comcast Corp. for VOD delivery. It has deployed VOD to about 300,000 customers so far, including Adelphia's Cleveland and Bethel Park, Pa. systems, with more rollouts planned this summer in both MSOs' territories.

Scientific-Atlanta launched its new xOD application, which has the ability to turn the consumer's television into a platform for "anything on-demand," according to the company. Using the xOD application, subscription VOD (SVOD) services can deliver all of the same digital navigator features as the VOD offering, plus dual branding–highly visible onscreen areas for cable operator and content provider logos. In addition, content providers can deliver direct-to-screen promotions of their subscription services, and the xOD application enables consumers to purchase the service in real time using their remote controls, rather than a phone.

MidStream Technologies Inc. announced integration of its new IP2160 Media Server with the Harmonic Inc. Narrowcast Services Gateway (NSG) product line, enabling flexibility, scalability, and capacity, while lowering costs for cable operators deploying VOD/SVOD services, according to the companies. This combination offers advantages to cable operators deploying centralized on-demand servers in the headend, or utilizing the flexibility of an edge-based delivery approach with on-demand servers at the distribution hub.

A series of announcements from middleware provider Liberate Technologies related to developing iTV content on thin-client set-tops. Through a series of agreements, it is working to develop new solutions specifically for the Motorola DCT-2000 boxes.

With an eye toward the predicted transition of interactive TV software and solutions to a Java-based platform through the OCAP initiative, Liberate and TV Guide announced the availability of a Java-based IPG platform for inclusion on Motorola DCT-2000s. TV Guide's IPG will run on the Liberate TV Platform Compact as an application layer technology, as opposed to embedded within the box design. With an available footprint of just 2 MB, running the Java-based IPG as an application, in conjunction with the Liberate middleware, should allow for better cohabitation.

Another announcement brings AT&T's HITS into the fold; the nearly 300 MSOs affiliated with HITS will soon have access to digital services based on the Liberate TV Platform Compact software. Those MSOs won't need to modify existing plant or upgrade DCT-2000s already deployed in the field to run Liberate iTV services.

Also, Liberate announced its first broadcast-synchronous demonstration agreement, with Nickelodeon, for implementation on a live Motorola headend. The two ran demos of two flavors of enhanced TV services–both channel synchronous and program synchronous–through an MTV Networks demonstration.

One demo allowed kids to call up specific characters from Nickelodeon's new Nicktoons TV, a new 24-hour animation channel. Kids access the application anytime while watching the channel through their remote control, but the app is not synched to a specific show on the channel. The other demo featured program synchronous interactive programming, where viewers played against programs in real time during game broadcasts on the Nickelodeon Games and Sports network.

Chips

Motorola Broadband said it will use Texas Instruments silicon to build cable modems based on DOCSIS specifications. Various Motorola cable modem models also use Broadcom chipsets, but none of those models have been awarded the DOCSIS 1.1 seal.

In addition to baseline DOCSIS 1.0 gear, Motorola Broadband will use TI's chips in more advanced 1.1 modems and 2.0 gear, which will implement the spec's advanced time division multiple access (A-TDMA) physical layer to bolster the upstream path and to mitigate noise. DOCSIS 2.0 modems must also support S-CDMA (Synchronous Code Division Multiple Access) before they can be certified by CableLabs. Motorola said its SB4220 model will incorporate TI's complete DOCSIS platform, which is designed to integrate with DOCSIS physical and media access control layers of the open system interconnect (OSI) reference model.

Broadcom Corp. unveiled its next-generation cable TV set-top box solution, the single-chip BCM7115, which includes personal video recording (PVR) functionality, a MIPS processor, an advanced graphics engine, and significant mixed signal integration for lower system solution cost, according to the company.

The BCM7115 system-on-a-chip builds upon previous generations of Broadcom set-top box designs such as the BCM7015 and BCM7100. These chips are currently deployed in high volume across multiple equipment vendors' existing cable TV set-top boxes.

With IC designs in a variety of consumer devices that have made it into the operator fold, Intel is now showcasing a design for an integrated multimedia gateway–the Intel Media Reference Design. With a Celeron processor core, the integrated hardware and software design includes support for audio and video applications, content and back-end systems.

A future iteration of a box created with the Intel design could potentially encompass broadband access, DVD playback, PVR, gaming, MP3 audio, content storage, home networking and VOD. While a 733 MHz Celeron processor drives the design in terms of processing power, flexibility in the design allows for integration of a full range of Celeron and Pentium III processors from 300 MHz to 1 GHz.

The new reference design includes hard drives from Maxtor, display components from Focus Enhancements, and video decoder components from Sigma Designs. It's brought together via an embedded Linux-based OS from TUXIA.

Broadcom's BCM7020 advanced video graphics subsystem supports interactive television and set-top box systems that require decoding of MPEG-2 streams. It supports multiple stream standard definition decoding, providing both tiled video and picture-in-picture capability. In addition, the chip supports recorder playback of up to four channels for applications that require added playback capacity.

Network management/monitoring/activation/OSS

Arris entered into an agreement with ILC to provide network and element management products which allow greater visibility and control to cable operators to manage the complexities of hybrid fiber/coax network operations. Products that will be sold by Arris for the cable market will initially include a range of element and network management systems for HFC transport networks.

"Operator requirements for managing their transport networks are growing more sophisticated," said Bob Stanzione, president of Arris. "Arris first developed an out-of-the-box element management solution at a time when very few operators were actually using element management; our customers' needs have now moved on, and the challenge is for manufacturers to support the complex requirements of today's networks with solutions that scale more effectively and with more advanced feature sets. ILC provides the focus and expertise of a company specializing in network management, and who can leverage experience gained in other markets. Our partnership with ILC gives us the tools to solve today's more complex network and element management needs."

The agreement with ILC provides Arris with access to the company's network and element management technology. Arris will provide support through its worldwide marketing and support organization in 29 countries. This includes pre-sales and first-line post-sales support for the products.

Arris also introduced the VisionWorks family, initially available as a range of network and element management products to manage the hybrid fiber/coax transmission portion of the network. The platform-independent management system scales from an out-of-the-box, basic element manager to a fully-featured network management system that can provide end-to-end management of very large networks, according to Arris. VisionWorks' capabilities can include intelligent alarm correlation, trouble ticketing, and automation.

AT&T has announced new managed IP network and Internet service capabilities that help cable companies and ISPs deliver an array of applications–from e-mail to instant messaging–and better serve the needs of their broadband end users. Some of these capabilities are already serving the more than three million broadband users of AT&T's IP infrastructure.

The company said it is introducing these new capabilities to help companies like AT&T Broadband, Mediacom Communications, and Insight Communications reliably deliver to their end users services such as e-mail, personal home pages, net news, chat and instant messaging services.

Charter Communications selected Ceon Corp. to provide a multi-service, flow-through provisioning system to speed the deployment of services to its 7 million customers nationwide.

The agreement gives Charter a license to the Ceon Integration & Provisioning Suite, which includes Ceon's Intelligent Order Manager and Intelligent Activation Server. Ceon software will be used to support flow-through provisioning of Charter's Pipeline high-speed data service.

The same Ceon platform will be utilized to support both packet-based and circuit-switched telephony service activation as well. Provisioning of advanced video and other future services is also anticipated within the agreement, with service to residence and small business customers.

Motorola Inc. Broadband Communications Sector launched its new Advanced Provisioning System, an open, integrated operational support system. The scalable system automates the steps involved in service creation, activation, management and billing, allowing operators to quickly deploy and manage data, telephony and video services over their broadband networks. Operators can deploy the system out-of-the-box as a standalone solution, or as an element of their network management and provisioning infrastructure. Turnkey custom adapters provide integration with legacy OSS and customer back office applications. The system enables policy-based management of network resources and automated, end-to-end provisioning of network equipment and services according to industry standards.

Motorola selected Interactive Enterprise Ltd. to provide service creation, activation and transaction management software modules for the system. The deal is an exclusive one for Motorola CMTS devices.

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