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MEMORY LANE - All Boxed Up

Tue, 08/31/2010 - 8:20pm
Stewart Schley Media & Technology writer, Denver, Colo.

Whether Steve Jobs likes it or not, the box still reigns supreme.

Ever since the cable industry began to deploy set-top boxes, people have been trying to figure out ways to eliminate them. The latest and most notorious example, of course, is the CableCard, the much-maligned approach to creating interoperability between digital cable services and TV devices. With less than 1 percent of U.S. households having purchased one of the things to slip into TiVo boxes or TV sets, the CableCard has been embraced by U.S. consumers with about the same level of fervor as that associated with New Coke, the disastrous 1985 soft drink reformulation.

Stewart SchleyThus, the set-top box remains both a staple of the common cable user experience and a source of frustration to those who would like to break into the market. Apple Chairman Steve Jobs recently complained that the near-ubiquitous settop box is what stands in the way of innovation.

“The TV industry has a subsidized model that gives everyone a set-top box for free. So no one wants to buy a box. Ask TiVo, ask Roku, ask us, ask Google in a few months,” said Jobs at Dow Jones’ D8 conference in June. “The only way that’s going to change is if you tear up the set-top box, give it a new UI and get it in front of consumers in a way that they’re going to want it.”

That may be the case today, but in the 1990s, for at least a brief time, it appeared a fresh technology approach might just spell the end of the cable set-top. The technology was called interdiction, a term aptly derived from the Merriam-Webster definition, which is to “forbid in a usually formal, authoritative manner.” Interdiction turned the traditional method of securing premium video channels upside down: Rather than scrambling channels from a headend and relying on set-tops to unscramble the signals, interdiction permitted in-the-clear delivery of all signals. Close to the home, an interdiction device – sort of a modified tap – jammed any unauthorized signals using a frequency-agile oscillator to introduce a signal-muddying attenuation between the channel’s video and audio frequencies.

For a time, interdiction was hailed as a breakthrough security approach that would revolutionize the way cable TV worked. US West, a telephone company that had constructed an overbuild cable system in Omaha, Neb., viewed interdiction as an attractive consumer proposition targeted at a growing population of cable-ready TV set owners. In Oregon, Chambers Communications chose interdiction for system rebuilds in the spring of 1997, theorizing that premium-channel subscribers would embrace the idea of a box-free living room. The California city of San Bruno, which built its own cable system, liked interdiction because it “rendered the system user-friendly, eliminated theft of services from the use of illegal decoders and created operational efficiencies,” according to a city-maintained online history.

Manufacturers trumpeted the appeal of the new technology, too. “People really do not like cable boxes,” one Scientific Atlanta product line director told Connected Planet magazine that year. Blonder Tongue Laboratories, a New Jersey cable equipment maker that supplied interdiction technology to Cablevision Systems and others, held an annual Interdiction Conference during the late 1990s.

Interdiction also promised economic advantages. Rather than sending technicians to install boxes for new premium-channel customers, cable operators could instruct interdiction devices to jam or pass through signals from a remote command center, saving money on truck rolls. That capability was especially attractive for apartment buildings where resident turnover was high. And interdiction had extra appeal to highperforming cable systems. The devices typically had four ports, each associated with a different subscriber. The higher the penetration, the better interdiction looked from an expense standpoint.

So why did interdiction fizzle? Partly because of practical considerations. Customers who lacked cable-ready TV sets still required a set-top box to tune to higher-frequency channels, obviating one of the economic arguments for interdiction. And partly because technology passed it by. Interdiction devices were designed to work with analog signals, not MPEG video, the language of the modern cable network. Also, interdiction doesn’t allow for unique authorizations for individual devices attached to the network, conflicting with a movement toward device-specific entitlements.

Interdiction systems are still on the market today, but they’re geared mainly toward niche apartment installations. Set-tops? They’re out there in droves, with close to two boxes for each of the nation’s 91 million cable and satellite homes. Interdiction was briefly the rage. But in the end, and whether Steve Jobs likes it or not, the box still reigns supreme.

E-Mail: stewart@stewartschley.com

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