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A few years ago, set-top boxes (STBs) were touted as being as flexible as PCs, but they were too expensive for consumers, and operators could not afford to rent or give them to their subscribers.

The low-cost STB of today has a greater processing capability, making operations, such as channel changes, faster and allowing more than just the picture to be delivered. Viewers now can select interesting background information, action replays and different camera angles, and many STBs offer a certain amount of interactivity and future-proofing, thanks to their ability to download software.

The STB is primarily provided to consumers in one of two ways, either as part of a package to a subscription television service or purchased directly from an electronics store. Using MPEG-2 decoding, it usually only allows the viewing of one channel at a time from a multiple channel choice, unless the household has more than one STB.

This trend is starting to change through the incorporation of hard disk drive storage and multiple tuners to form devices that are also known as personal video recorders (PVRs).

STBs for terrestrial, cable and satellite are all technically fairly similar. The main difference is that cable boxes, especially in the USA, tend to include a cable modem that can be connected to a PC for Internet access and can be used by the STB as a return path for interactivity. For their return path, satellite and terrestrial STBs can use a phone line to support interactivity via their remote control. Viewers can purchase items seen on-screen, and they are often prompted to ‘hit the red button’ to vote, see additional information or participate in quizzes.

Everyone watching digital TV

In the transition to digital services, many governments have mandated a switch-off time for their analog services. Most consumers still have analog televisions and video recorders, so this is where the digital TV adaptor comes in. Currently, the digital adaptor is offered in the form of a separate STB-type device that allows simple selection between the digital channels. This is the level of product that many satellite, cable and terrestrial operators will use to introduce consumers to their services, while also giving a taste for the future. The price of these adaptors, although low, will get lower still, so it will not be long before buying one becomes a case of when, and not if.

Standardized software interfaces

Most STBs offered as part of an operator’s subscriber package are dedicated for use with that package only. With initiatives such as the DVB MHP and the OpenCable OCAP, however, there is a move towards a more standardized and transferable STB product that can be bought at retail outlets. This has a great appeal to consumer electronics companies and even some operators who will no longer have to provide a subsidized STB, but the initiative is at an early stage and needs to be effectively marketed to persuade consumers that these STBs are worth buying.

Home networking

Although the distribution of TV around the home can be done easily using co-axial cable, few of us want to pull up floorboards to put in more wire. Wireless protocols such as IEEE802.11 are attractive, but they will put pressure on the STB because of the bandwidth requirements and the need protect the content. Ideally, a home server recording and then streaming TV to any room in the house would be the solution, but the cost is currently too high for most consumers.

Summary

The STB is always at its most compelling when the cost is minimal. This may seem obvious, but many companies seem to develop a business model assuming that a substantial profit will be made on the sale of the STB itself. Like the DVD player, consumers acquire an STB not to admire its beauty, but to enjoy the content.

Advanced features such as hard disk drives, home networking interfaces and even broadband connectivity will increasingly become available as natural progressions. But the STB unit itself will effectively become invisible because the only way it is actually used is via the remote control. Indeed, because this is now often a common remote control shared with the television set, consumers will feel as if they are interacting directly with the program they are watching and not with the STB.

Peter Yaxley is manager, Consumer Devices, NDS Group.

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