Cablers, vendors work to make the agreement a reality

Turning the ground-breaking Plug & Play agreement into technical reality is not as easy as, well, plug-and-play. Forged in December 2002 between the cable and consumer electronics industries and adopted as rule by the Federal Communications Commission the following summer, the agreement calls for "one-way" digital TVs with built-in set-top box functions and a CableCARD authorization slot. Consumers would buy the sets at retail, obtain a CableCARD from their local MSO, slide the card into the slot and receive non-interactive digital services.

But the complex agreement requires a slew of changes, ranging from network control upgrades to recognize this new breed of device to adding new inputs on high-definition set-tops. So MSOs and cable gear makers have been hard at work putting these changes in play, even as the first Panasonic brand digital-cable ready TV set from Matsushita Electric Corp. hits retail shelves.

The network

Time Warner Cable is treating the plug-and-play devices like any other new product rollout, putting it through beta testing in its Minneapolis system, according to Paul Conway, director of strategy and development for the MSO's advanced technologies group.

The big step on the network side is to upload Version 2.2 of Scientific-Atlanta's Digital Network Control System software to recognize and support CableCARD digital sets.

"That was a big undertaking. There was a lot of work that needed to be done on that end to make sure that was stable, and that's why we are beta testing it," Conway says. "That's why we are going to let it run in Minneapolis before we take it to any other divisions."

The MSO plans to have all of its Scientific-Atlanta systems upgraded to Version 2.2 in early 2004.

Other cable companies using Scientific-Atlanta gear also are starting to install the Version 2.2 software, says Bob Van Orden, S-A's vice president of product strategy and management for subscriber networks. For any of the systems already using the 2.0 or 2.1 release, it would be a minor upgrade, but "we still have some systems still back on a 1.x release, and that is a little bit more," he says. "But even there, it is a day's worth of work, even in the harder cases. So it is not that big of an issue."

While the software upgrade will bring a majority of Time Warner's territory up to speed, portions of three systems in the Southwest and National divisions use Motorola Broadband's conditional access platform. On that front, Time Warner is coordinating through CableLabs and with other more Motorola-heavy MSOs to test upgrades and then share results, Conway says.

Carl McGrath
Using the existing Motorola Digital Access Controller software, MSOs can now sign on CableCARD-enabled TVs by manually entering the information. A system update due out early this year will convert that to an automated process, according to Carl McGrath, corporate vice president and general manager of digital core gateways for Motorola Broadband.

He adds that should not present a problem to MSOs, given the relatively low number of digital cable-ready sets expected.

"I would agree with them that in high-volume deployment, the current mode of operation is not optimal," McGrath says. "A sort of gap continues to exist in what is the best way for this to be automated, for this to be supported in high volume, and for the install interaction to move from the cable operator up to their business system. While the protocols and methods exist, there are no CSR screens at the moment to deal with this. So they can authorize as many units as we believe they get into the channel today. The data is all in the system, but it is not really optimum for high-volume, and guess what? It isn't a high-volume problem to solve."

Meanwhile, Time Warner is keeping a close watch on the retail space for the Panasonic CableCARD TV sets, Conway says. So far, none has shown up.

CableCARD: As-needed

With that in mind, Time Warner is not going wild in ordering CableCARDs.

"We have a blanket order with S-A for CableCARDs, and what we've told our divisions is to order them on an as-needed basis," Conway says.

Nor have S-A or Motorola seen a big rush for the certified CableCARDs based on their conditional access systems.

"We built more than have been ordered–let's put it that way," Van Orden says.

But demand for more CableCARDs may increase as the list of digital-cable ready TVs grows. LG Electronics plans to introduce a digital-cable ready HD set in the first half of 2004, and Pioneer Electronics Corp. is planning to introduce a line of CableCARD-enabled plasma-screen television sets by mid-year. Just last month, CableLabs awarded a certification stamp to a CableCARD-enabled HD TV set from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.

Motorola also has in the works a consumer TV device, in development with display maker Proview International Holdings Ltd.

1394 inputs by request

While the Plug & Play agreement concentrates on retail digital sets with built-in set-top functions, there is one required change for boxes the MSOs distribute. By April 1, cable operators also must provide an HD set-top equipped with 1394 Firewire inputs to any customer requesting it.

S-A had developed a version of its Explorer 3250 HD set-top box to include optional 1394 plugs, and it is now testing the unit. But MSO pre-orders for that box are "pretty small," Van Orden says.

S-A believes this has to do with the fact the DVI digital input is finding better traction in the consumer marketplace, in part because it combines audio and video inputs in one plug.

"It's also smaller and a little easier for the consumer to handle than 1394, which has little screws in it and is kind of a big plug," Van Orden adds. "So DVI is really taking over as the connection for display devices and so forth."

But other box makers disagree. Pioneer Digital Technologies' HD-DVR Voyager 4000, set to start shipping in February or March, will come standard with 1394 Firewire inputs. "From Pioneer's perspective, we are behind 1394," says Haig Krakirian, Pioneer's VP of software engineering.

Motorola's third-generation HD box, the DCT6200 series, also will come with 1394 and DVI standard. And that will be the rule for all HD boxes going forward, McGrath says.

That decision was based on input from operators, who didn't want to complicate their HD inventory with multiple box versions.

"Maybe in a quarter we will revisit it and decide that, nah, give me 10 of those and 20 of those, but for now I think they made the early decision that the cost differences did not justify the logistics issues they were going to have," McGrath says.

But while MSOs and cable equipment providers are working to support the one-way Plug & Play agreement, the bigger issue looming is the follow-up agreement, which intends to cover interactive services such as video-on-demand. Far more complex, with controversial issues such as copy protection yet to be resolved, the two-way agreement negotiations aren't expected to wrap up soon.

"We're still waiting as everyone else is for the two-way agreement to really shake itself out," McGrath says.


New spec will boost CableCARD streams

For now, CableCARD technology will link combination digital cable TV sets to "one-way" cable programming only–but it is going to get a multistream boost soon. That's because a new add-on CableCARD specification recently minted at CableLabs will allow these Plug & Play devices to receive multiple incoming video streams. While not called for under the existing Plug & Play agreement, the Multistream CableCARD specification was prompted by three little initials: DVR.

Digital video recorders are now the hot item in home video technology, allowing customers to record, pause and rewind live television. But DVRs also need multiple stream capabilities to allow picture-in-picture functions and the ability to record two programs simultaneously.

With a wave of DVR digital box rollouts now under way among major MSOs, it stood to reason that makers of TV sets with Plug & Play digital set-top functions would also want to include DVR functions, says Don Dulchinos, CableLabs' vice president for advanced platforms and services.

"It gets more urgent because I think all of the MSOs now are on a very firm path to go get DVRs out there, so therefore wanting the retail versions of products to be able to do the same thing," he says.

The Multistream CableCARD specification has recently been completed at CableLabs and is now ready for vendors to submit products for testing. As yet, no cards or host devices have been submitted, Dulchinos notes.

But multistream doesn't equal interactive. While the Multistream CableCARD will come in handy for DVR functions, it still will not provide the OpenCable interactive planks envisioned in the pending two-way Plug & Play agreement still being negotiated between the cable and consumer electronics industries.

There is a possibility the Multistream CableCARD devices could be upgraded to two-way interactivity once the follow-up Plug & Play agreement is forged. CableCARD is based on an earlier OpenCable Point-of-Deployment (POD) technology called J2K Plus, which did include two-way interface capabilities. The key will be how much the two-way Plug & Play agreement relies on the J2K Plus scheme, according to Motorola Broadband's McGrath.

"I think it would be incorrect for anybody to say definitely a one-way CableCARD can magically become a two-way because details of the agreement have not been finalized," he says. "But certainly 99 percent of the technology underlying it and the signaling has been exhaustively worked through the POD and one-way process and directly applies."–KB