NCTA Plan to 'Set the Table' for Retail Set-Top Market

Wed, 10/31/2001 - 7:00pm

Aiming to goose the sale of digital cable set-tops via retail channels, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association voluntarily launched a plan that involves boxes with proprietary, embedded security.

Under that proposition, NCTA said cable operators will support retail distribution of set-tops, but will offer to buy back the equipment on a depreciated basis if a customer moves to an area where the cable system might not be compatible with the box. OpenCable-compliant set-tops, meanwhile, will be portable, as the security, or conditional access, will be separated via credit card-sized point of deployment (POD) modules and set-tops with POD-host interfaces to accept the modules.

An NCTA spokesman said the initiative is designed to "set the table" for a retail market and serve as an interim step before CableLabs' standards-based middleware–the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP)–becomes available. It's expected that as many as 10 vendors will have OCAP implementations on display at this month's Western Show. At the same time, CableLabs and its members are hammering out the details on a streamlined version of OCAP, which originally was pegged for "thicker," advanced set-tops. Although OCAP is apparently being retooled for less capable set-tops, its completion "will come faster than people think," a senior cable executive said.

NCTA President and CEO Robert Sachs, in a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, noted that retailers have not placed orders for POD-enabled boxes and the "retail market has been slow to develop." Starting off with set-tops with integrated security "should foster a retail market," Sachs wrote.

Motorola is also developing a Digital Convergence Platform (DCP) line of retail cable boxes to complement existing DCT 2000s and DCT 5000s. "We think there's a segment that wants to own the equipment, but we don't know how many people will want to do that," said Chris Crafton, Motorola's vice president and director of broadband policy. Though the NCTA plan aims to kick-start the cable set-top retail market, the trick will be to find out whether a bona-fide market for the equipment really exists, she added.

Despite high hopes, NCTA's plan met with skepticism from the Consumer Electronics Association. Specifically, the CEA expressed disappointment, arguing that the initiative does not involve portability and initially promotes only boxes with proprietary conditional access technology.

Some cable set-top vendors have in the past complained about barriers in obtaining conditional access licenses from the two largest domestic cable set-top vendors: Motorola Broadband and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

Motorola and S-A have claimed they negotiate licenses on reasonable terms and do so indiscriminately. S-A, for example, has licensed its "PowerKey" technology to the likes of Pace Micro Technology plc, Pioneer Electronics, Panasonic and Toshiba. Pace is the only outside vendor to obtain a "DigiCipher II" license from Motorola Broadband. Panasonic and Philips Electronics, which have set-top deals with AT&T Broadband, have yet to secure the DigiCipher II license.

While not setting a hard deadline on its new initiative, the NCTA said MSOs will encourage box vendors to make set-tops with embedded security available at retail "as soon as possible."


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