Convergence tops CES agenda

Panasonic’s 150-inch plasma HDTV monitor, and Sony’s quarter-inch-thin organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screen – both of which debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas – may have put the focus on big and slim as the future of television.

But a more subtle trend – several manufacturers’ integration of Internet video access into television monitors – has even greater implications for TV’s progression. Panasonic, Sony, Philips, Samsung, LG and others showed prototype TV sets that offer easy access to Web video, while Motorola, Cisco (via its Scientific Atlanta subsidiary) and NDS demonstrated next-generation set-top boxes (STBs) aimed at the converged market.

At a triple-play-related session, Martin Stein, the senior director of digital media solutions at Motorola, affirmed that IP is the future of video distribution, although he acknowledged that switched digital video (SDV) will continue to play a major role in the near term.

Bill Gates, Cisco’s Explorer 8550HDC DVR, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts
Left, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who gave his 11th – and final – keynote at CES since
the first in 1994; Middle, Cisco’s Explorer 8550HDC DVR and Motorola’s DCX3400 HD DVR;
Right, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who in his CES keynote discussed new services
such as wideband, Fancast, Project Infinity and the AnyPlay portable DVR.

Motorola’s new STBs, called the DCX series, feature high-definition (HD) video and surround sound audio capabilities, as well as whole-home DVR functionalities, which allow video content to be played out on multiple DVRs in a home with a DCX box serving as the multimedia hub. The DCX will also allow customers to share their own multimedia content across multiple DVRs.

For its part, Scientific Atlanta showed an array of new STBs in its 8500HDC DVR series, which include high-capacity, HD digital video recorders (DVRs). 

Meanwhile, NDS – still trying to crack into the U.S. cable market – privately demonstrated its newest integrated system for video/voice/data access. The company says the device is being trialed at a U.S. cable system. Its architecture features a “VideoGuard” USB thumb drive, which can be used to move programs from the STB to a remote player, such as a car video system or portable player. Separately, with the digital TV transition only a year away, much of CES focused on the newly-launched consumer education campaigns and the availability of low-priced digital-to-analog converter boxes.

EchoStar plans to offer two new digital-to-analog converter boxes. The TR-40 over-the-air converter allows analog TVs to receive digital over-the-air broadcasts. Other features include up to a seven day electronic programming guide (EPG), program search, parental locks and VCR auto-tune timers.

And the TR-50 DVR digital-to-analog converter box allows customers to view, record and playback local over-the-air analog and digital broadcasts, including those in HD.

Also, EchoStar’s Sling Media announced the development and CableLabs DOCSIS 2.0 certification of what the company claims is the first cable modem that fully integrates the place-shifting capabilities pioneered in the original Slingbox: the SlingModem.

The SlingModem allows users to watch and control TV programming on any Internet-connected device, such as a PC, Mac or compatible smartphone. Additionally, customers with a digital cable STB can connect the SlingModem to the set-top for access to live or recorded TV programming.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, in his keynote remarks, reasserted the vow of a “broad rollout” of Internet services at rates of up to 100 Mbps by year’s end, with more HDTV content available online. Roberts showed the new Panasonic digital cable-ready TVs, as well as a video portal to Apple’s iTunes and a unified messaging service.

Roberts also threw down the gauntlet against competitors such as Verizon and DirecTV with the announcement that Comcast expects to have more than 1,000 linear and HD VOD choices by the end of the year. And the Comcast CEO said that its TiVo service has been launched in New England and will be made available in more markets throughout 2008.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, during his third-annual “one-on-one” onstage conversation with Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) President Gary Shapiro, continued his assault on the cable industry. Martin said that he hopes TV set makers can create ways to deliver cable TV without the need for STBs, citing “innovations” such as the tru2way devices being developed by Panasonic and Comcast.

CableLabs officially changed the name of its two-way technology from OpenCable Platform to tru2way at the CES show.

Cox cozies up to Gemstar-TV Guide, NDS

Cox Communications is preparing to expand the use of Gemstar-TV Guide’s Passport interactive program guide (IPG) from its Motorola systems to its Scientific Atlanta systems this year, and in December, the MSO negotiated a new multi-year deal with the IPG vendor.

The deal includes product agreements covering Gemstar-TV Guide’s native and tru2way – formerly OpenCable Application Platform – versions of Passport. And the contract covers various features and services of My TV Guide, including remote record. Cox also negotiated for an IPG patent license.

Gemstar-TV Guide’s Passport IPG
Gemstar-TV Guide’s Passport IPG

Part of the promise of tru2way is the ability to support any software on any set-top box (STB). One of the most prominent examples envisioned by MSOs has been propagating a single IPG across their entire footprints to provide a consistent look-and-feel and brand identity, as well as a consistent interface for common features and applications.

Cox said that it selected Passport as the common IPG largely because of its performance as a gateway for on-demand services.

“This is critically important today and will be even more so in the future as our video services become increasingly interactive,” said Steve Necessary, Cox’s vice president of video strategy and product management. “This will enable all of our customers to benefit from the same user interface and take advantage of similar applications across disparate set-top box hardware environments.”

And in January, Cox chose NDS’ IEX system as the operator’s preferred automated STB testing solution, which will replace manual testing equipment.

After successfully testing an IEX server for the past year on the Scientific Atlanta platform, Cox decided to expand its automated testing program using IEX and to extend automation to include Motorola STBs, as well.

NDS’ solution combines hardware and software to automatically test all interactive applications on STBs operating in both cable and telecom environments. The system can test anything from changing the channel to launching an electronic program guide (EPG), ordering a PPV movie or playing an interactive game through the remote control.

“NDS’ automated IEX testing system turns around fast and accurate results, which we are using to increase our efficiency and to decrease turnaround time in launching new services,” said Bjorn Andersson, lead QA system engineer for Cox.

First vendors thru DOCSIS 3.0 door

DOCSIS 3.0 QualificationsCasa Systems, Arris and Cisco became the first companies to earn DOCSIS 3.0 qualification status.

In order to speed up DOCSIS 3.0 rollouts and encourage vendors to submit gear for testing more quickly, CableLabs implemented a tiered test program last year for cable modem termination systems (CMTSs).

In a recently completed test wave, startup Casa Systems received a “silver” qualification for its CMTS, while Arris and Cisco both earned “bronze” qualifications for their CMTS gear.

A key distinction between bronze and silver is that a system qualifying for the former is capable of channel bonding on the downstream, while a CMTS qualifying for the latter enables channel bonding in both directions.

Faced with increased broadband speeds from the likes of Verizon’s fiber-based FiOS service, cable operators have been clamoring for more speed. DOCSIS 3.0 specifications enable downstream data rates of 160 Mbps or higher and upstream data rates of 120 Mbps or higher.

Hillcrest Labs inks more funds

Hillcrest Labs has completed an additional $25 million round of funding, led by new investor AllianceBernstein. Existing investors – including New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Columbia Capital and Grotech Capital Group – also participated in the latest round of funding.

Hillcrest Labs will use the funds to further extend its pointer-based application creation platform and pointing technology to a wide range of devices that control and display digital media, the company said.

“We aim to bring a new ‘point-and-click’ paradigm to the television and beyond,” said Dan Simpkins, founder and CEO of Hillcrest Labs.

Insight’s Dietz retires; Cisco’s Giancarlo departs

Both Insight Communications and Cisco have recently lost very important persons (VIPs).

Charlie Dietz, who has run technical operations for Insight since signing on with the company in 1996, retired on Jan. 11.

Charlie Dietz
Charles Giancarlo

Dietz joined Insight as the vice president of engineering and had been CTO since 2001. Insight provided no information on succession.

“It was Charlie who rebuilt our systems, it was Charlie who tied disparate technologies together as we acquired more cable systems, and it was Charlie who spearheaded our early technical efforts to diversify our product offering and enable us to offer our three-product bundle,” said Insight CEO and Vice Chairman Michael Willner.

Dietz led the company’s pioneering move into video-on-demand (VOD) and interactive TV (iTV) services. He also spearheaded the company’s launch of phone services in 2000, making Insight one of the first MSOs to provide circuit-switched telephony, as well as one of the first MSOs to commercially deploy the triple-play bundle.

And over at Cisco, Chief Development Officer and EVP Charles Giancarlo resigned “to pursue new professional opportunities.” Giancarlo was positioned as Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers’ heir apparent.

In December, Giancarlo helped Cisco reorganize its development organization, which resulted in the establishment of the Development Council.

The Development Council, which comprises seven technology leaders, will collectively drive Cisco’s development efforts and initiatives in technology development, which are key to Cisco’s growth strategy.

“[Giancarlo] has built a seasoned management team that has the strength and skills to execute against our technology vision in order to capture growth opportunities and market share,” Chambers said.

Pace to pick up Philips’ STB division

Pace Micro Technology has inked a conditional agreement to acquire the set-top box (STB) and connectivity solutions business of Royal Philips Electronics. 

The $135 million deal, which is subject to Pace shareholder approval and other conditions, would make Pace one of the world’s top-three set-top manufacturers. Once the deal is complete, Philips will have a 23 percent stake in Pace, in exchange for 70 million Pace shares.

Philips’ DTR7005 set-top box.
Philips’ DTR7005 set-top box.

Pace CEO Neil Gaydon predicted that the deal would create a company with revenues of more than $1 billion in sales, and a company that would produce approximately 8.5 million STBs a year.

“There is a strong strategic fit from customer, product, geographic, culture and scale perspectives,” Gaydon said. “We have minimal customer overlap, and the combined group will have a significantly enhanced technological position.”

Pace’s customers in the U.S. include DirecTV, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Net-works, while overseas customers include BSkyB and BT.

SCTE Conference on ET highlights
Top left, SCTE President and CEO John Clark with industry vet Jim Chiddix;
Top right, Clark with Paul Kagan, the chairman and CEO of PK Worldmedia;
Bottom, panelists from “The QAM Before the Storm” session.

Sprint taps new prez/CEO

Sprint Nextel’s new president and CEO, succeeding the ousted Gary Forsee, is Daniel R. Hesse.

Daniel R. Hesse -&- XOHMSprint had previously hired Hesse to run its local telephony operations, but the telco spun that business off in 2006; Hesse remained with the operation – christened Embarq – as its chairman, president and CEO.

Prior to joining Sprint, Hesse had a 23-year career at AT&T, culminating in a stint from 1997 to 2000 as the president and CEO of AT&T Wireless Services.

“Dan Hesse is the right person to lead our company,” said Sprint board member Irvine O. Hockaday Jr., who chaired the board’s CEO search committee. “He is a proven leader with deep wireless experience as a chief executive and an established track record of generating strong operating performance. He has the board’s full support to take decisive actions necessary to improve our performance.”

Under Forsee, Sprint began to reach beyond cellular services, entering a joint venture with cable operators that allowed the MSOs to expand their bundles from three to four services (video, data, VoIP and mobile telephony), and exploring the use of WiMAX as the basis for a nationwide data network.

Sprint will go ahead with its WiMAX network, called Xohm, but comments from the board suggest that Hesse will have to pay clear attention to the bottom line and shareholder value.

And just before Hesse was named to his new role in December, Sprint announced that it was ready to deploy IP Version 6 (IPv6).

The company said it was nearing initial beta testing of IPv6 MPLS VPNs on its Peerless IP (PIP) network, which provides a platform that is physically and logically isolated from the public Internet.
Customer trials were expected to begin in January, with general availability in the second quarter of 2008.

Also slated for the second quarter is the launch of Sprint’s WiMAX network, Xohm. Sprint is testing Xohm in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and the telco expects to start offering commercial services in other U.S. cities – which it has yet to identify – in Q2.

NCTA, CTHRA, Wi-Fi Alliance get new execs

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the Cable and Telecommunications Human Resources Association (CTHRA) and the Wi-Fi Alliance have all recently appointed new executives.

Lynne Ramsey
James M. Assey Jr.

James M. Assey Jr., a former senior Democratic counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, has been named executive vice president of the NCTA. He succeeds David Krone, who recently joined Comcast Corp. as senior vice president of corporate affairs.

And Lynne Ramsey, senior vice president of human resources (HR) for Charter Communications, will begin a two-year term as president of CTHRA.

Juan Munoz, regional VP of HR for Time Warner Cable’s Texas Region, will end his term as head of the organization and will serve on CTHRA’s executive committee and board of directors as immediate past president.

Lastly, the Wi-Fi Alliance has named Edgar Figueroa as the organization’s new executive director. For the past several years, Figueroa has led the operations for the alliance’s certification program – Wi-Fi Certified.

Figueroa was instrumental in establishing the alliance’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, and the research and development lab in Santa Clara, Calif. He succeeds Frank Hanzlik, the Wi-Fi Alliance’s managing director from 2004-2007.

TiVo on board with Internet downloads

TiVo’s Season Pass subscribers are now able to download video content from the Internet to their TVs.

By using RSS feeds, TiVo customers can download network nightly newscasts and other content from networks such as Comedy Central and Discovery. The service will also give users access to niche content that TiVo said is not typically available from satellite or cable operators, as well as independent media content.

The new Web video capability requires TiVo Desktop Plus 2.6, an update to the Windows application that also converts recorded TV shows for viewing on portable devices such as the iPod and Sony PlayStation Portable. TiVo Desktop Plus 2.6 will be available in March for a one-time fee of $24.95, and it will be a free upgrade from earlier versions.

Verizon starting to deploy G-PON

Work is gearing up on adding gigabit passive optical network (G-PON) equipment to Verizon’s FiOS fiber service in order to boost bandwidth.

G-PON can increase the line-rate bandwidth on Verizon’s fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network by four times for downstream to the customer and eight times for upstream back to the network.

While Verizon didn’t specifically say what new services the additional bandwidth capacity will enable, it could allow the company to offer more HD channels and more HD VOD offerings to its customers.

G-PONThe cable industry has also looked at G-PON deployments, but most cable operators are focusing their efforts on DOCSIS 3.0, another method for achieving higher rates on both the upstream and the downstream through channel bonding.

Mark Wegleitner, Verizon Telecom’s senior vice president of technology, said that Verizon has already started to deploy G-PON broadly across the company’s FiOS system. The new G-PON equipment is being used in communities where Verizon is building FTTP for the first time.

A Verizon spokesperson said that Alcatel-Lucent’s equipment will be in the live network installations in most of the nearly 40 areas, with Motorola in first-office plays and Tellabs in the final testing prior to deployment.

The states where Verizon began initial deployment of G-PON were California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas.

The announcement followed initial field deployments of G-PON in Kirklyn, Pa.; Lewisville, Texas; and Hingham, Mass. Thus far, Verizon has been deploying broadband passive optical network (B-PON) technology to provide market-leading Internet access performance.

“Both B-PON and now G-PON give us all the headroom we need to continue evolving our products to meet growing customer demand for more bandwidth, both downstream and upstream,” Wegleitner said. “However, moving to technologies like G-PON helps ensure that we stay ahead of the competition.”

Meraki to deploy free Wi-Fi in San Francisco

Meraki Networks will deploy a citywide wireless access network in San Francisco that will provide free broadband Internet access for every neighborhood by the end of the year.

Free Internet Access

Meraki’s plans are bold considering other large companies, such as EarthLink, saw their Wi-Fi plans flounder last year. Meraki touts its inexpensive routers and backend system that balances the bandwidth demands between the customers and the routers.

“This groundbreaking network in San Francisco will show the world that with Meraki’s unique approach to building networks, we can quickly bring broadband Internet access to every city in the world,” said Sanjit Biswas, CEO and co-founder of Meraki. “By expanding our San Francisco network, we are creating the largest real-world test network of its kind, where we plan to develop new wireless networking technologies and also test the economics of free, ad-supported Internet access.”

In order for Meraki’s network to function, the company needs to install free radio repeaters on customers’ rooftops and homes, although the repeaters are not required for residents who wish to use the network.

Meraki’s “Free the Net” program – which launched last year in San Francisco in select neighborhoods – will be the springboard for the city-wide program.

Archos connects with Dish for video transfers

Dish Network customers are now able to transfer their favorite movies and TV shows to their Archos portable media players (PMP) with a new plug-in download.

The plug-in is offered exclusively to Dish subscribers with a VIP722 or VIP622 HD receiver, and it is compatible with the Archos 705 Wi-Fi and 605 Wi-Fi players.

Martin being investigated; FCC investigates Comcast

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved two controversial measures in December, the first capping any pay-TV provider’s market share at 30 percent, and the second relaxing media cross-ownership rules.

The FCC board passed both measures despite cautions from some in Congress to reconsider, cautions that included a threat from Rep. John Dingell of an investigation into the way Chairman Kevin Martin has been managing the FCC.

'Martin being investigated'And Dingell followed through on that threat. The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee will determine if the FCC has been fair, open, efficient and transparent as it has formulated regulations.

In early January, Dingell, the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman – along with the Committee’s ranking Republican, Joe Barton – asked Martin to save all electronic records and personal e-mails related to FCC work.

Martin is being accused of giving insufficient public notice in preparation of some measures, and of delaying the sharing of details on draft agenda items with other commissioners. He also challenged Congress by ignoring requests to delay making a decision on media ownership rules.

At the same time, the FCC is investigating complaints that Comcast has been interfering with BitTorrent traffic. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing network.

In the normal course of traffic management, Comcast does in fact cut off BitTorrent sessions when its network becomes congested (as do other operators). The expectation is that the BitTorrent application will do what it is designed to do, which is re-establish a connection later. As a practical matter, Comcast and other MSOs are doing what they say they are doing: delaying BitTorrent traffic.

Meanwhile, the American Cable Association (ACA) has petitioned the FCC to adopt rules that would prevent networks from forcing bundles on network operators as the FCC reviews retransmission consent and program tying arrangements.

Popular networks commonly force cable operators that want to broadcast that content to also carry other, less-popular channels. Many operators are compelled to take the unwanted channels in order to get the one they do want. Small cable operators, who may be most susceptible to such strong-arm tactics, have long complained about the practice.

Matthew M. Polka, president and CEO of the ACA, said, “It runs contrary to the public interest when programmers leverage their market power in carriage negotiations to force all consumers to take and pay for high-cost and niche programming to receive popular program channels.”

Finally, the FCC is sticking to Feb. 17, 2009, for the digital TV transition, though Commissioner Michael Copps stated flatly that some broadcasters will not meet the deadline.

Arris rolls out wideband VoIP modems

Arris has unveiled its Touchstone TM702 embedded multimedia terminal adapter (EMTA), which provides converged Touchstone TM702 (EMTA)voice and data service with data speeds of up to 160 Mbps.

The TM702 pairs two lines of carrier-grade VoIP with the channel-bonded speeds of DOCSIS 3.0. Arris’ TM702 uses the channel-bonding, wideband functionality from DOCSIS 3.0 to attain the higher speeds.

Cable operators are counting on DOCSIS 3.0’s increased upstream and downstream speeds to compete against telcos.

Bruce McClelland, president of the Arris Communications Group, said, “We have developed our next generation of EMTAs and data modems as a direct response to cable MSO requests for increased speed and reliability as they go head-to-head with competitors to serve their most demanding and profitable market segment.”

During the third quarter of last year, an inflection point was reached when global EMTA shipments exceeded those of data-only modem shipments.

A spokesman for Arris said that the company expects the TM702 to be in CableLabs’ next certification wave. The TM702 is currently being trialed in unnamed cable operators’ labs.

Nielsen, Invidi measuring personalized TV ads

The Nielsen Company and Invidi Technologies Corp. have entered into a multi-year agreement to share data and discover ways to measure personalized TV ads that are targeted to specific viewers.

Nielsen will provide Invidi with demographic data, enabling Invidi to add the ability to track addressable advertising to its advanced software engine – Advatar. 

In 2007, Nielsen introduced standardized ratings of TV commercials that enable clients to measure the impact of commercial viewing on consumers with digital video recorders (DVRs) and other time-shifting technologies. Last year, Nielsen also launched DigitalPlus, which works with set-top box (STB) data from cable operators and satellite providers, to create new insights and services for clients by integrating STB data with other Nielsen information.