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MOU deadline a non-issue for five MSOs

Tue, 06/30/2009 - 8:40am
Mike Robuck

As part of last year’s memorandum of understanding between six cable operators and some of the biggest names in the consumer electronics industry, tomorrow is the deadline for five of the nation’s largest cable operators to show that they have network support in place for tru2way middleware in their headends.

As deadlines go, this isn’t a stomach churning, pull an all-nighter and call in the reserves type deadline.

For a variety of reasons, tomorrow’s deadline for tru2way support will probably slip by with nary a word by the parties involved.

Last year, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Cablevision, Charter and Bright House Networks forged a tru2way MOU with, among others, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, LG Electronics, ADB and Intel that was designed to support tru2way devices in retail markets. The nation’s six largest cable operators, who are referred to as “founders” in the MOU, collectively serve 80 percent of the country’s cable subscribers.

The MOU was also designed to give the cable operators and CE companies a “common reliance” platform for interactive TVs and set-top boxes, as well as to smooth over any ill will between the two entities.

One of the provisions of the MOU was that Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Cablevision and Bright House Networks have network support for tru2way middleware in the headends that serve all of their digital cable systems by July 1. (Charter was granted a pass until next year.)

So where are those five cable operators in terms of their tru2way support? Hard to say since Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Cablevision declined to respond to inquires about the status of their networks’ support for tru2way in advance of tomorrow’s deadline. Comcast senior vice president of strategic planning Mark Coblitz, who played a key role in the creation of the MOU, also declined an interview request.

“[Tru2way middleware support] is not in 100 percent of those headends now, and that’s due in large part to the economy and also because you really need the devices out there to test,” said National Cable & Telecommunications Association general counsel Neal Goldberg. “The unfortunate thing is just as we concluded this agreement and started to go full-speed ahead, the economy went to hell in a handbasket.

“Another event over the last year that affected this, in addition to the economy, is a little thing called the digital TV transition. Cable played a big role, and even though it wasn’t our transition, a lot of engineers were doing a lot of different things over the past year.”

On the cable operator side, Time Warner Cable has said it has close to 2.5 million tru2way set-top boxes deployed, while Bright House Networks’ numbers are in the hundreds of thousands. Comcast expects to have tru2way network capability in 98 percent of its network by the close of this year, but some of the other MOU founders aren’t very close to meeting the requirements of tomorrow’s deadline.

Cox said earlier this year it will launch its first tru2way deployments in July with NDS Group as the primary integrator of its tru2way platform. Cox has also spent some time getting its tru2way program guide up and running with NDS Group.

Goldberg said all five of the cable companies that are facing tomorrow’s deadline are making progress, and that the cable founders and CE companies in the MOU are satisfied with each other’s progress.

“There are no significant discrepancies where you can say that company X has completely fallen down on the job and isn’t doing anything, while company Y has blown the socks off of everybody,” he said. “[Cable operators] are all moving along at a reasonable pace and significantly complying with the terms of the agreement.

“I think what is most important is that this is a contract that is enforceable by the CE and cable companies who are working in tandem on this. No one feels like the agreement is blown up or anything like that.”

For the most part, progress has also been slow on the CE side of the MOU. Goldberg said Panasonic was farther along with its tru2way TVs than the other CE manufacturers and had the distribution channels in place to get its tru2way TVs into retail markets, namely Comcast in Chicago, Denver and Atlanta.

“You can’t really tell what [tru2way] will look like until those devices are out there,” Goldberg said. “That’s why Comcast is working so well in the three markets where the Panasonic devices are. Since the agreement was signed, the operators have found that that is the best way to make sure that the support is there as needed to get the devices out.”

Not that other CE manufacturers aren’t trying. Sony, Samsung and LG Electronics have shown tru2way devices at the CES and Cable Show events this year, as well as ADB’s set-back device for Sony’s Bravia TVs that is slated to be one of the demonstrations at the Sony/Comcast store in Philadelphia.

The MOU also includes an opt-out clause for the cable operators if the retail market for tru2way devices develops too slowly, but the cable operators and CE companies appear to be committed to making the tru2way MOU work.

“The important thing is that we’re working together now,” Goldberg said. “Instead of paying lawyers we’re paying business people, engineers and technicians to get these devices out there and working. Speaking as a lawyer, I’m overjoyed that we’re not fighting these battles at the FCC now, and that we’re working it out in the market with the technical and business people.”

Goldberg said the FCC hasn’t formally recognized the MOU, but it’s a good example of how two industries that used to butt heads were able to forge a voluntary agreement that’s beneficial to both without the heavy hand of regulation.

Aside from the MOU companies, Goldberg pointed to the work done by CableLabs in making sure the tru2way devices work and to CableLabs interops events as more signs of progress on the tru2way front. CableLabs’ OCAP 1.1.1 has taken a while to reach fruition, but it was issued on June 12.

Another provision of the MOU is that MOU operators have committed to include tru2way middleware in 20 percent of their new interactive navigation devices – in this case set-top boxes – that are purchased after July 1. Cable operators in general have been adding in tru2way boxes over the past few years as part of their natural refresh cycles, and the above requirement will terminate after the cable industry has deployed a total of 10 million boxes with tru2way middleware.

Goldberg said he didn’t see the 20 percent commitment as a problem since it’s in the cable operators’ best interest to have the more advanced boxes deployed.

Tru2way is building momentum, but most of the people who have worked on it would probably agree that it has lots of moving parts, or as one CTO said three years ago when asked why OCAP took so long to deploy, “Because its freakin’ complicated!” (Bonus points if you can guess who said that.)

More Broadband Direct 06/30/09:
•  MOU deadline a non-issue for five MSOs
•  Comcast starts offering mobile WiMAX
•  TiVo shares decline after nDVR win
•  New FCC chairman appoints staff
•  Bill would ensure disabled access to telecom services
•  Broadcom boosts hostile takeover offer for Emulex
•  Forrester: Worst may be over for U.S. tech market
•  Ailing Calif. economy could prolong U.S. recession
•  Broadband Briefs for 06/30/09

 

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