Consumer electronics and cable: Déjà vu forever?

Fri, 03/31/2006 - 7:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph. D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

The consumer electronics and the cable industries have had a "love/hate" relationship for decades. This goes back to the early 1980s when a joint committee was formed between the Engineering Committee of the NCTA and the then Electronics Industries Association (EIA) to consider the "consumer electronics interface." With great pain, some standards were hammered out. Some, like the channel numbering standard, brought order out of the chaos. Others, like the set-back descrambler plug, never made it past a few demo models. Subsequent embodiments in the one-way CableCARD have been helpful, but the problem is still with us for digital two-way cable. The headache remains for cable services that require a return path.

Walter Ciciora
The cable and consumer electronics industries have a common focus. The cable operator's subscriber is the consumer electronics manufacturer's and retailer's customer. To the extent that they can make this point of interest happy, they should both benefit. Better cable service and programming stimulates a desire for the latest and best display and great pictures motivate premium service subscriptions. But what seems obvious doesn't always turn out to be the whole story.

The cable industry would love to get the in-home hardware off its books by having subscriber ownership. But cable needs to be able to offer new services not constrained by the capabilities of the ensemble of consumer electronics devices in the home. This has always been the case, but it takes on new importance as cable's competition becomes more virulent. Fiber-to-the-home and IPTV need to be answered with advanced approaches that cannot be constrained by legacy technologies in consumer premises equipment. "Legacy" means the technology you are stuck with and which just might choke you relative to the competition.

The consumer electronics industry is apparently temporarily happy with selling displays. There are a wide variety of display types, most still selling at premium prices. Plasma panels, LCD flat screens, projectors based on micro-mirrors, and good old cathode ray tubes supply enough variety to allow manufacturers to argue that their offering is the best value for the money. There is even a good old-fashioned horsepower race over resolution, with the ultimate being 1080p. These displays put out the ultimate resolution that the ATSC standard can support. And they do it at the highest price point. Never mind that there are no signals at present to take advantage of this resolution. Consumers still have the bragging rights to the best available.

In an industry plagued by massive over-capacity to manufacture products, the ability to differentiate from the competition is critical. But with prices falling and margins narrowing, differentiation in displays will not long be enough. There will be the need for complete receivers with a wide array of dazzling features to use in convincing consumers to select one product vs. another and to maintain some level of price stability. This will regenerate the conflict.

Switched digital video, also called switched digital broadcast, is currently a hot topic. It has been observed that at any given time, only a limited number of "channels" are used in an area served by a fiber optic node. The set of channels changes from time to time, but the maximum number viewed is always much less than the total number available.

Spectrum can be saved if only the "channels" actually watched are transmitted. This is accomplished by having the set-top box send a request to a switching location when the subscriber attempts to switch channels. A message is returned to the set-top telling it where to tune to receive the requested "channel." If no subscriber on that node has requested that "channel," it is added to the set of switched-in channels. If someone else has already selected the channel, the new request is satisfied by simply sending a message to the set-top to tell it where to tune. These channels do not have the ability to offer the VOD features of pause, fast-forward, stop, and rewind. Switched digital video programs are simply continuously flowing broadcast channels (which can be used with a DVR). Statistically, this greatly reduces the amount of spectrum required.

This technique is a trade-off of capital investment in hardware and software at the ends of the cable system vs. rebuilding the cable plant to increase its bandwidth. The origination end requires switches, modulators, and upconverters, and the receiving end requires a set-top capable of sending the appropriate messages requesting channels and then responding to the instruction to tune to the requested stream. The set-top must give the appearance of delivering the requested channel number to the viewer. There are also concerns about the amount of time required to send the messages back and forth and do the switching and tuning.

A further complication: subscribers with current "digital cable-ready" receivers will be left out. These receivers are not capable of sending the requested channel and then responding to the message telling the receiver where to tune for the switched channel.

Fasten your seat belts!

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