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OCAP in sight

Tue, 01/31/2006 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor-in-Chief

Las Vegas—Cable brought out the big guns last month at the Consumer Electronics Show to demonstrate its present and long-term support for the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), a CableLabs-specified middleware stack that aims to give operators a national footprint for interactive services and applications as well as an entrèe into the retail market for digital set-tops and televisions.

Although the cable industry recently volunteered to begin OCAP launches in 2006, and to complete OCAP headend installations nationwide by July 1, 2009, executives from the nation's largest MSOs outlined some concrete examples of their respective plans:

  • Time Warner Cable Chairman & CEO Glenn Britt said the operator would install OCAP headends in systems serving a combined 2.5 million cable customers starting this year in New York City; Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wis.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Waco, Texas. At the conference, the operator also demonstrated an OCAP-compliant TV made by Samsung that supported Time Warner's OCAP Digital Navigator interactive program guide, video-on-demand and third-party applications, including a weather and news program from BIAP Systems.
    The examples of support demonstrate "some concrete steps to show that this (OCAP) is real," Britt said.
    Time Warner's commitment follows an OCAP-related memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Samsung announced at last year's show. The MOU, which also involved Advance/Newhouse Communications, called for the MSOs and Samsung to write specs for OCAP-compliant TVs and how they operate on a cable network. Since then, Time Warner has begun to test OCAP-based TVs from Samsung in Gastonia, N.C.
  • Advance/Newhouse, meanwhile, will spend 2006 preparing for an eventual deployment of OCAP. Company Chairman & CEO Robert Miron noted that the operator will begin such work in Indianapolis, and treat it as "learning experience" as the company preps other divisions for OCAP.
  • Comcast Corp. will also push the OCAP needle in 2006, starting in Philadelphia, Denver, Union (N.J.) and Boston, said company Chairman & CEO Brian Roberts. He added that Comcast is working with Panasonic on an OCAP-based application that will relieve some of the "frustration" consumers experience with their home theaters, namely the sizable number of remotes required to control multiple devices. Using OCAP, Comcast will be able to "provision" the speakers and other devices hooked into the home theater environment, and enable the consumer to control them all via one remote. Comcast revealed other OCAP-related plans earlier in the week, signing Panasonic to a deal to initially provide 250,000 HD-DVR set-tops with dual MPEG-2 and H.264 compression techniques outfitted with Panasonic's implementation of the CableLabs-specified middleware.
  • Charter Communications President & CEO Neil Smit said the MSO will begin OCAP deployments in "select" markets in 2006. At last year's show, Charter also announced an MOU with Samsung, with expectations that it would deploy low-cost network interface units and Samsung bidirectional HD sets that incorporate XHT (eXpandable Home Theater), a home networking technology that supports the IEEE1394 "Firewire" cable.
  • Cablevision Systems Corp. COO Tom Rutledge said the operator is also moving ahead with OCAP plans of its own in New York. There, Cablevision has started the process of porting its IPG and associated apps to OCAP, thus enabling the operator to retain the "signature" elements of its digital cable service, he said.
  • Cox Communications, meanwhile, is "fully committed to deploying OCAP," said company President Patrick Esser. This year, he said, Cox plans to deploy a series of two-way, OCAP-compatible news, weather, e-mail, bill viewing/payment, premium service upgrade, TV-based caller ID and gaming applications.
DBS plays up portability, HDTV

At the show, DirecTV served up its answer to EchoStar's PocketDISH, introducing a line of portable media players under the DirecTV 2Go banner.

Samsung & DirecTV
Samsung (left) demonstrated OCAP running on a set-top-free digital TV.
DirecTV (right), meanwhile, introduced a line of portable media
devices in partnership with a handful of CE companies.

By combining special software with the device, DirecTV's entrant will connect to and download content from the DirecTV Plus DVR. The service will also allow customers to connect a DirecTV-compatible portable media player directly to the company's satellite receivers. DirecTV plans to launch the portable service later this year. At its booth, DirecTV showed off '2Go' devices from several manufacturers, including Creative, Humax, Polariod, Thomson and Samsung.

DirecTV also showed off its play at "video-on-demand" with a 100-hour DirecTV Plus DVR. Starting in Q1, the DBS service provider will offer shows from NBC and affiliate networks such as USA, SCI FI and Bravo within hours of their original airing, commercial free, for 99 cents.

EchoStar splashed last year's show with the PocketDISH, but this year it was all about high-definition television—and offering more of it. Although the "consensus" is that cable outdoes DBS when it comes to HDTV, EchoStar hopes to change that in 2006, company chief Charlie Ergen said.

In this case, EchoStar said it will expand its offering of Rainbow Media Holdings' VOOM HD networks from 10 to 15 channels starting Feb. 1, 2006. Under the non-exclusive deal (meaning cable can offer them as well), the full slate of VOOM networks offered by EchoStar include HDNews, Equator HD, Gallery HD, Rush HD, Rave HD, Ultra HD, Animania HD, Monserters HD, Gameplay HD, Treasure HD, Worldsport HD, Family Room HD, Film Fest HD, Kung Fu HD and World Cinema HD.

EchoStar is coming to market this month with four new HD packages, starting with a 25 HD channel tier that sells for $54.99/month.

EchoStar will also push ahead with more local HD fare in 2006, Ergen said.

Once consumers get a taste of HD, they want more and more, said Rainbow President & CEO Josh Sapan. Customer satisfaction of HD networks "ranks up there with breathing," he quipped.

WebTV 2.0

Thanks to faster speeds and broadband service penetrations, the Internet is quickly attracting so-called "over-the-top" video services from all corners of the globe and from companies of all shapes and sizes. But when companies like Google and Yahoo! give it massive attention, it's definitely appearing like it's ready for primetime.

Google and Yahoo! shared the stage at the massive show at different times, but their message was similar: we're ready to enter the video age in a big way.

Google set plans in motion to open up a Web-based video service that will allow visitors to buy and rent a range of titles from studios and networks, including CBS. The Google Video Store will feature commercial-free primetime and library fare from CBS, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Survivor, and The Amazing Race, as well as I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, and the Star Trek Deep Space Nine and Voyager series.

CBS hopes the move will attract eyeballs that are drawn more to PCs than to television screens.

Giving a nod to sports fans, Google Video will also serve up NBA games from the 2006 season (for a fee) as well as some archival footage from the league. Google said it will offer entire games for this season, including playoff games.

The service will also supply music videos from Sony BMG, independent flicks from Greencine.com, footage from ITN, Charlie Rose interviews, cartoons from Classic Media (Felix the Cat and Rocky and Bullwinkle, among them), and children's programming from Clearvue.

True to its "Store" name, the service will also sell titles from networks such as Here! TV, HDNet, SOFA Entertainment, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Wheels TV and Wilderness Film India Ltd.

The service will also tap the power of Google's search technologies, allowing users to sift through listings by category and title and other key words.

Because it is introducing yet another digital rights management platform to the table, Google said users will be able to download and watch "non-copy-protected" Google Video fare via the Apple iPod and Sony Playstation Portable.

In addition to network fare, the service will also support user-supplied content, a prime element of the beta version of the service that has been available for several months.

Yahoo!, meanwhile, said it is ready to bring video from the PC screen to the TV screen. Similar to a service already offered by TiVo Inc., Yahoo!'s entry, dubbed Go TV, will enable users to take content, including video and digital photos, from their PC or the Web and pipe it to a connected television. The service will also bring a range of consumer Internet applications such as integrated search to the television.

Yahoo! said it plans to launch the service "in the coming months" and will offer it as a "lightweight" client download.

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