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Plug & Play Goes Into Round Two

This month marks the second anniversary of the digital cable TV plug-and-play pact between cable operators and consumer electronics makers. That agreement resulted in a grand total of 700 digital-cable ready (DCR) sets in American homes by Labor Day 2004, according to a report requested by the FCC.

It has not been an easy process, even to get the first small phalanx of DCR installations. The key ingredient in the agreement is the CableCARD, a device intended to replace set-top boxes.

Early adopters have been troublesome.

"Armies of cable engineering personnel,from field technicians to corporate engineers, have continued to spend time troubleshooting and fixing UDCPs [UnidirectionalDigital Cable Products] as they appear in consumer homes," the National Cable & Telecommunications Association explained in its report to theFCC. NCTA pointed out problems with early DCR TV sets. It cited one unspecified model in which "the pins in the CableCARD slot inside the TV bend when you try to insert a CableCARD, due to a solder-temperature error in the manufacture of the TV set." The report said there were "no plans for a recall of this DTV, so the issue has to be handled by a technician in the field."

However, NCTA said cable operators have collaborated with consumer electronics companies "in on-site troubleshooting... although not required under any agreement or order."

The status of unidirectional plug-andplay involves a bit of posturing and a great deal of political positioning, as the cable and consumer electronics industries-along with many new participants-confront the much tougher task of creating an agreement on bidirectional digital cable technology. The negotiations began as soon as NCTA and the Consumer Electronics Association, on behalf of their respective members, signed the unidirectional agreement in December 2002. The FCC approved that pact nine months later.

The current skirmishes about DCR deployments are part of the cable industry's effort to push back the deadline for full nationwide availability of Cable-CARDs, now set for 2006.

During the first half of 2005, the FCC will revisit the viability of that deadline, according to Rick Chessen, head of the commission's DTV Task Force. Chessen cited factors that will affect the timing requirement, such as whether consumers can actually selfinstallthe hardware.

"We want to make it as easy as possible," Chessen said.

He also acknowledged the FCC is "monitoring and encouraging" the talks about bidirectional (i.e., interactive) digital cable services. Those negotiations are being conducted behind closed doors.

Chessen said the FCC does not have "any real timetable" yet for coming up with an industrywide agreement.

When talks began, some consumer electronics participants dreamily predicted a one-year process. Cable executives said they envisioned no quick resolution-befitting their desire to maintain control over home equipment.

The likelihood of extended bidirectional negotiations became even more evident when Silicon Valley, Hollywood, satellite carriers and the broadcasting industry joined the cable/consumer electronics talks. Representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America, NAB, various computer and software suppliers plus other copyright and retransmission-minded participants have swelled the group's size to 90"interested parties" at some sessions.

That kind of mob assures volatile disagreements about copy protection, privacy service responsibilities andother factors in the complicated interactive architecture.

Although negotiators are obeying their self-imposed gag order about revealing progress, a few fundamentals have seeped my way.

One negotiator whispered to me, in a mixed metaphor, that talks are "fruitful," but moving at "a snail's pace." Issues such as selectable output control, down resolution and other barriers from earlier talks have resurfaced, as content companies seek to assure that future bidirectional devices protect and presentcontent as creators intended.

To further complicate negotiations, separate factors are taking shape that will change the digital delivery landscape.

Most notably, the largest cable operators have quietly developed a Next Generation Network Architecture (NGNA) for future cable infrastructure.

NGNA emerged during the past year from an independent working group controlled by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and other large cable operators. It has now been turned over to CableLabs and is tightly under wraps.

Since many of the same cable, electronics and computer companies involved in the bidirectional plug-andplay negotiations are also working on the NGNA format, it is easy to expect an overlap in the joint process. NGNA is not under FCC supervision at this time, and it's not clear how it will affect future home DCR deployments.

Some elements of the current NGNA vision may never take shape. If the NGNA structure is too complicated or expensive, it may hinder rather than enhance the consumer experience.

One confidante involved in several current technology initiatives looked beyond the current plug-and-play discussions.

He suggested that conflicting industries' interests and advancing technology assure that there are likely to be Round Three, Round Four and maybe Round Five of the plug-andplay negotiations.

He did not sound too enthusiastic about sitting at an even larger negotiating table to get through whatever those talks would seek to accomplish.

Gary Arlen
Gary Arlen

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.