PVR sidecars hitch a ride to today’s digital set-top boxes,
but will operators roll them out in 2002?

Across the board, cable operators are looking to roll out new services in 2002 that can add even more to their bottom line, and maximize the networks and infrastructure they've busily been upgrading in recent years.

One of the more compelling potential service rollouts is Personal Video Recording capability, or PVR (also sometimes referred to as DVR, referencing the digital nature of recording and storing broadcast signals for future manipulation by the user). No matter the acronym used, content storage technology allows for broadcast content to be cached, cataloged and stored for later retrieval. Users create custom television viewing, based on their own personal preferences and viewing habits. Want to watch "Friends" but won't be home in time? Set the box to record every episode broadcast this week, and watch at your leisure. Blast through the commercials. "Time-shift" your programming for viewing when it's convenient for you.

As channel-laden digital cable proliferates, and satellite systems continue to add to their channel count, the torrent of new and varied content will mean a real opportunity for technology providers that can develop solutions to harness and control an increasingly complex viewing environment. And besides, users love to have control!

The early incarnations of PVR–standalone retail systems from familiar market players like TiVo and ReplayTV–were first to market with expensive boxes and independent monthly services plans. The pure retail play caused an initial stir among consumers, but adoption rates seemed to hit a "wall" at under a half a million units in service in the U.S. Enter the service providers, specifically satellite providers who, through partnered promotions, have given PVR a needed boost, and recent sales through that channel have renewed interest in PVR technologies. Spurred by success from their satellite counterparts, can cable operators be far behind in developing PVR business models?

Current estimates put PVR use at just over 1 million units in the U.S. Closer inspection shows that about 75 percent of those units were sold in just the past 18 months through the satellite dealer channel. At new satellite industry leader EchoStar, PVR rollout is approaching full tilt boogie. At last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, EchoStar announced the availability of the new DishPVR 508 satellite TV receiver, an integrated receiver and personal video recorder that offers up to 80 hours of total video storage in addition to the standard time-shifting capabilities enabled through the receiver's PVR software. The 508 is an upgrade to the DishPVR 501 receiver, introduced last year, which offered storage of up to 35 hours of recorded content.

And cable operators have taken notice of the competition. MSOs like AT&T Broadband have been running promotional trials with retail players TiVo and ReplayTV (now a division of SONICblue Inc.) for the traditional standalone systems consumers might find at their local Best Buy or Circuit City. Comcast, which is in the process of acquiring AT&T Broadband, also ran a similar promotional program with ReplayTV as well. But, it turns out, these trials were just a taste of what's to come.

Today, cable is sort of in the process of redirecting its PVR strategy, turning now in the formative stages to a "sidecar" type of architecture, whereby a box with PVR storage and processing capabilities connects with the digital set-top box already found in subscriber homes. These slimmer versions of the standalone PVR systems integrate with the software running traditional set-tops in the field, and can be easily integrated with interfaces users are already comfortable with.

In November, AT&T Broadband announced a sidecar strategy with partner TiVo, which will provide a box that communicates via IR (infrared) with the set top. The promotion is offered to subscribers in the New England, Denver and select California markets at a price point of $299 for the 40-hour TiVo sidecar, plus an additional $9.95 monthly service fee.

AT&T's lean toward a sidecar approach to early PVR is an indication of how cable operators will likely move in the year to come. While operators are busy improving their headend and network architectures to deliver advanced services like video-on-demand, by offering a simple sidecar attachment to legacy set-tops, operators can enter the quickly-moving PVR game right away without much delay. It's no surprise that a few PVR software and hardware firms have emerged to provide these initial solutions.

One upstart firm, Keen Personal Media, offers a sidecar PVR for use with current generation Scientific-Atlanta Inc. Explorer-series set-top boxes. After seeing satellite's success in offering PVR technologies, Keen set its sights on hooking into the 15 million to 17 million deployed digital set-tops in the U.S. today.

"We concluded that PVRs sold retail with a phoneline connection to an 800-number dial-up service was a clunky way to do PVR," explains Russ Krapf, president and CEO of Keen.

Cable's two-way nature lends itself fairly gracefully to a set-top/sidecar type of approach to PVR. That's because one-way satellite systems require that PVR users also dial-up a phoneline connection for communication and service. Keen's sidecar connects to an S-A Explorer through the USB (universal serial bus) interface, and communicates through the set-top to reach the cable headend. The USB connector (or serial connection with other set-top brands) between the set-top and the sidecar handles all of the communications, gathers the electronic program guide data, and can even download special instructions or software upgrades to the user.

Today, Keen is involved in a field trial with one undisclosed major MSO on an S-A network, and is working through engineering trials with a few others. It also has an agreement with S-A to integrate Keen hardware and software technology right into the next generation, PVR-capable Explorer 8000.

As for a sidecar outfitted for boxes made by Motorola Broadband Communications Sector, Keen has demonstrated a sidecar compatible with the DCT-series serial port, but a box ready for field trials won't be available until later this year.

Another new sidecar player, CacheVision Inc., is approaching the operator sector with a similar type of two-box solution–this one through a set-top's serial interface. At the recent Western Cable Show, CacheVision showed off a sidecar demo featuring Canal Plus' Media Highway middleware and a serial-connected Philips Consumer Electronics set-top.

As opposed to the Keen sidecar, CacheVision's approach involves a stripped-down box with just storage and basic PVR recording in the sidecar to leverage much of the technology and capabilities inherent in currently deployed set-tops.

"It will be pretty compelling for an operator to leave that (current generation set-top) box in there," says Stevan Eidson, vice president of marketing for CacheVision.

CacheVision also has more of a standalone offering, the CVR-4200, which includes EPG information, but another focus it has is on the OEM possibilities in the consumer electronics world. The company will aim the CVM-3000 "connected component" at makers of CE products like DVD players and TVs in an effort to bring PVR functionality and browsing capability back into retail consumer electronics.

Software platform provider Ucentric Systems also wants to bring PVR capability to a set-top near you, but its entertainment-centric software solutions are likely to find their way into more of a centralized "media server" type of product, obviously still on the drawing board, but promising nonetheless.

Currently, Ucentric is involved in field and lab trials of its home server technology with operators like Rogers Cable Inc., AT&T Broadband and Comcast, testing prototype hardware to "give life" to the Ucentric Home Networking Software Platform, according to Director of marketing Paula Giancola.

Each of these trials is evolving to include Ucentric's latest addition to its software suite, something the company calls "home networked PVR"–an innovative PVR model where each TV in the home has the ability to time-shift and store programming from the same source device.

In Ucentric's home networked PVR scenario, a centralized media server hooks into the broadband connection, and serves as the primary PVR for other devices along the network. Meanwhile, thin-client set-tops reside on each TV or device and communicate with the centralized server, where most of the caching and cataloging takes place. Today, if you want separate time-shifting capabilities on multiple TVs in the home, a user must purchase a separate (and expensive) PVR receiver for each TV. Ucentric's distributed approach means a user could have PVR capability on any TV, communicating via a HomePNA-over-coax network throughout the home.

"There's a great opportunity here to leverage the intelligence in the home, across multiple devices," explains Giancola. "And on top of that, (an opportunity) to deliver the kinds of services people are craving."

Another company that sees that same opportunity is Moxi Digital Inc. (the former Rearden Steel Technologies), which came out of stealth mode at CES to reveal a similar home-network PVR plan through the use of its homegrown middleware and a variety of hardware reference designs.

For cable operators looking ahead, perhaps the biggest question they face in rolling out PVR services is what type of architecture is going to be the most efficient, easily managed, and most profitable. Where all the broadcast content is cached is the key factor in answering the PVR question. Will a customer's box cache all of the necessary content? Perhaps a personalized, distributed network where content is stored in some kind of centralized gateway is the best model, similar to the Ucentric or Moxi strategy.

Another potential architecture, what providers are calling "network-based PVR," has come to the fore, especially as VOD equipment makes its way into MSO headends and networks. In a network-based approach, caching and storage of broadcast content takes place in headend servers, and is pumped downstream to clients in users' homes. VOD servers are really the only type of network equipment that can handle the type of storage required to cache every bit of broadcast content; video servers doing network PVR can conceivably record every network and maintain personal libraries for tens of thousands of viewers.

As recently as last month, at the SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies, representatives from VOD vendor nCUBE Corp. boasted that its VOD video servers would be able to perform many of the capabilities needed to complete a network-based PVR approach.

"Cable operators are looking at PVR as the next generation services beyond VOD and SVOD (subscription-video-on-demand)," explained nCUBE Senior Vice President of Broadband Strategy and Product Management Jay Schiller. "The lines between network PVR and SVOD get blurrier as we move forward."

In the meantime, operators are responding to their satellite competition and the customer demand for personal recording with technology they can roll out today. Initial promotions for standalone devices are morphing into new sidecar approaches that better utilize the equipment already deployed in the field. And, like VOD, network-based PVR is a promising option operators are certainly considering. But like VOD, getting there is half the battle.