OpenCable isn't a reality yet, but that hasn't stopped Cox Communications from priming the retail pump for digital set-tops.

For starters, the MSO said two consumer electronics dealers in Virginia are making Motorola Broadband's new DCP501 Home Theater System available in their retail showrooms.

The DCP501 features a DVD/CD/MP3 player, a digital audio/video receiver and a digital receiver that can tune digital cable channels on the local Cox system. The DCP501 carries a manufacturer suggested retail price of $899 per unit, but final retail pricing is expected to be lower.

The two CE dealers–Audio Connection Inc. in Chesapeake and Domes Audio Video Environments in Virginia Beach–are the first to retail the DCP501.

It isn't the first time, though, that Cox has made digital cable boxes available via retail. Set-top maker Scientific-Atlanta Inc. has disclosed that Cox is selling the high-definition-capable Explorer 3100HD box to customers in Phoenix, Ariz. for about $499 per unit.

The Motorola and S-A boxes that Cox is making available at retail feature embedded (and proprietary) conditional access (CA) and encryption systems. Future OpenCable-based set-top boxes and television sets will separate those elements through point-of-deployment (POD) cards and POD-host interfaces. In addition to being retail-ready, those devices aim to be as portable as DBS receivers are today, allowing consumers to use the equipment in other OpenCable-compliant cable systems.

As an interim step, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) has encouraged cable operators to prime the retail pump with legacy, proprietary digital cable set-tops. That plan, introduced by the NCTA last fall, calls for cable operators to sell proprietary boxes through retail and offer to buy them back on a depreciated basis if, for example, a customer moves to an area where the cable system might not be compatible with the box.