The Comcast Media Center (CMC) used the backdrop of the National Cable Television Cooperative’s (NCTC) Winter Educational Conference in Charlotte, N.C., to announce today that Sunflower Broadband, BendBroadband and MetroCast Communications have joined the CMC as beta test sites for its Hits Advanced Interactive Services (AxIS) platform.
Launched in May, the CMC’s AxIS is a centralized platform that was designed to support advanced interactive applications developers, while also facilitating the launch of these interactive services on cable systems that serve small- to mid-size markets (story here). The platform supports interactive applications initially through Enhanced Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), with tru2way applications to follow once there’s a larger base of deployed tru2way-enabled set-top boxes and TVs.
"We are looking forward to the trial of Comcast Media Center's AxIS service," said Rod Kutemeier, general manager of Sunflower Broadband. "We have been actively evaluating interactive applications. We see the AxIS service as a new opportunity to understand what customers want and what we need to provide through an interactive set-top box."
In July, Buckeye CableSystem became the first cable operator to sign up for the CMC’s beta tests on the Hits AxIS platform (story here).
CMC senior vice president and COO Gary Traver said EBIF is a good launching point for cable operator subscribers to get used to using interactive applications. Another advantage to letting customers cut their teeth on EBIF-based applications is that EBIF largely works with the millions of legacy set-top boxes that are currently deployed.
“We have a philosophy, and the philosophy is that EBIF is plenty good enough to start working with consumers in getting them used to interacting with their remotes and their TV sets,” Traver said. “We’re very bullish and supportive of tru2way, but when you look at the number of tru2way-enabled set-top boxes that will be available during the course of the next several years versus the number of set-top boxes that will work nicely with EBIF, there’s a much larger base of customers that can be reached through EBIF.
“We’re really pushing EBIF hard initially, but we have support for tru2way, especially as it starts coming out as part of the retail component.”
The CMC, its Hits AxIS vendor partners, and the cable operators signed up for the beta tests are currently using Motorola equipment to test and onboard the EBIF-based applications.
“Right now, the user agent were using to test with in these beta trails is Motorola set-top boxes with the TV Guide system; it’s using the TVA EBIF user agent,” Traver said. “That is the current configuration we’re beta testing, but when this goes out to general release, it won’t matter if they’re Scientific Atlanta set-top boxes. We’ve also shown the applications running on Pace set-top boxes.”
The CMC initially collaborated with Vidiom and TVWorks on the AxIS platform that also supports product development for other companies that are developing interactive applications, including itaas – which is also involved in testing of the applications – NDS, Softel, Strategy & Technology, Unisoft, Alticast, Biap, Emuse, Ensequence, Sofia Digital, vivoTrak and Zodiac Interactive.
A spokesman for Buckeye said his company is currently testing a dashboard application and a Yellow Pages application, but he didn’t say what vendors were involved.
Traver said that the CMC is tackling interactive applications from several angles, including making sure the applications are portable and can be deployed rapidly across a large number of MSOs.
“We’re seeing a lot of really good work in compliance,” Traver said. “We’re bringing folks in, and they’re onboarding. There are cases where things are plugging in and playing almost immediately, and there are a couple of cases where we’re working with folks and they’re making adjustments, but on the compliance factor side, we’re pretty excited about what we’re seeing.
“No. 2 is that our team here has been really focused on really talking about portability across MSOs. When you think about it, you want to have a single EBIF application that works across the entire footprint of cable, but there are a lot of customers or cable operators that want to maintain the same consistency, look and feel, branding and other things. You have to find a way to achieve both of those objectives without having 18 different versions of the application, and without going through all of the wacky testing regimes so that you never really can get an application out.”
Traver said there’s a sandbox element to the Hits AxIS platform, as well as an onboarding component. While the CMC literally and figuratively built walls between the vendors for their privacy, to date there has been a surprising amount of collaboration between the vendors.
“We’ve been really pleased with the collegial atmosphere in the sandbox and onboarding,” Traver said. “We’ve actually seen many [vendors] voluntarily work with each other to help each other’s progress. It’s great.”
As for making the EBIF applications broad-based, Traver said some results will be available later this year.
The CMC and Motorola also announced today an enhanced version of their original Hits Quick Take Plus (QT+) service offered by the two companies.
The enhanced QT+ service allows Hits affiliates to launch programming from the Hits Quantum HD and SD channel platforms, as well as other content sources. In addition, Motorola announced the inclusion of impulse pay-per-view capability to the Hits QT+ headend management system.
“The big thing we think for NCTC is we announced our support of Quick Take,” Traver said. “It’s our very low volume way of providing the Hits services to really, really small communities and MDU installations. They’ve been after us for a while to get all of the support going on all of the new Quantum services onto Quick Take. We’ve been working at it for a while, and we’re finally ready to have the Quick Take service be able to take advantage of every Hits feed we have now.”
Traver said the Quick Take service was designed to serve “low 100s” of subscribers, and that general availability will start in April.
“We’re announcing it [at the NCTC event] so we can get people to sign up, and then we can work with them on building their templates so that they can take these feeds down,” Traver said.