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Bridging the pond with boxes

Fri, 11/30/2001 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner

Google Factor: 2,420

Unlike The Beatles, Pace Micro Technology plc did not exactly come to America with an embedded mass of people panting and heaving for its arrival. Instead, the company dropped anchor here with a monster challenge on its hands: breaking through the set-top duopoly enjoyed by Motorola Broadband Communications Sector and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

It has taken some time and effort (not to mention lots of money), but Pace has made some strides on the cable side of the equation, not to mention a few steps among a variety of satellite and DSL service providers.

However, that's not to say Pace still doesn't have a sizable undertaking ahead of it. Pace's success in the States has been rather limited, and, so far, includes just two cable set-top deals: with Time Warner Cable for a minimum of 750,000 boxes and Comcast Corp. for about 350,000 set-tops.

Those toeholds aside, Pace appears to be the most well positioned set-top manufacturer (outside the S-A/Motorola duopoly) to make some hay in the U.S.

The reason? Pace has an ace in the hole that other box makers do not have: conditional access licenses for Motorola Broadband- and Scientific-Atlanta-based networks. While several box vendors have S-A's "PowerKey" license, Pace is the only outside manufacturer to get Motorola's coveted DigiCipher II license.

If that doesn't seem like a big deal, just ask any set-top vendor that has tried to obtain that elusive license. How Pace actually obtained it is the stuff of legend, but the popular version is that the company got its hands on it in the 1990s (for an extremely handsome sum) when Motorola Broadband (then General Instrument Corp.) was courting Pace for a possible acquisition. Another version holds that GI succumbed to MSO pressure to play nice with others.

Having both licenses could come in handy in the wake of NCTA's plan to jump start the retail set-top market with boxes with integrated security. If that initiative proves to bare some real teeth and serve as a valid precursor to the OpenCable era, it could give Pace a sorely needed break in the U.S. and enable the company to tackle S-A and Motorola markets simultaneously.

Aside from the potential technical and political advantages, Pace is also a set-top shop known for innovation.

For instance, Pace forged a deal early this year to integrate Sega Corp.'s "Dreamcast" console gaming platform into advanced cable and satellite boxes that sport integrated hard drives. Though the timing of the announcement raised eyebrows (Sega, the same week, said it would scrap Dreamcast and, instead, focus on licensing the platform and making software titles for other gaming consoles), Pace set a precedent that it could look ahead of the curve and that it wasn't afraid to take some risks.

Others to watch:

Pioneer Electronics: With customers like Time Warner Cable and a solid slot as the No. 3 domestic supplier of digital cable set-tops, Pioneer's new gear, including the Voyager 3000, will pave the road for future successes. The PioneerConnect home networking initiative also has drawn interest.

Philips Electronics: Wields a strong consumer brand and a box deal with AT&T Broadband, but hasn't secured the DigiCipher II license.

Panasonic: See Philips

Sony Corp.: Its work with Cablevision is a good start.

Rearden Steel Technologies: Company chief Steve Perlman didn't exactly set the world on fire with WebTV before selling it to Microsoft Corp., but he did conjure up $67 million in financing from the likes of AOL Time Warner, EchoStar and Vulcan Ventures for his latest foray. The ultra-secretive Rearden is making a box with capabilities yet to be disclosed publicly. But here are some things we think we know: Rearden's building a "home gateway" box with PVR and CD-ripping abilities, and the company could seek out partnerships with third-party CE manufacturers.

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