What Does Cable Want?

In an obscure corner of the Sony booth at the far end of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention tradeshow floor, under Plexiglas covers, lay potential solutions to the digital TV transition. And it looked like they could be priced at less than $50.
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In an obscure corner of the Sony booth at the far end of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention tradeshow floor, under Plexiglas covers, lay potential solutions to the digital TV transition. And it looked like they could be priced at less than $50.

Advanced Digital Broadcast and Visionetics, both based in Taiwan, displayed their conceptual prototypes for very low-priced digital converters that could be used to fulfill the FCC's most recent plan to hasten the DTV transition. The FCC vision, as enunciated by Chairman Michael Powell and Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree, calls for cable and satellite retransmission and conversion of broadcast digital TV signals into analog format if necessary. They say that such an arrangement can be used to reach the 85-percent viewership level that Congress mandated before turning off analog broadcasts.

The ADB and Visionetics converters perform that analog delivery function-or seemed to. Each device is below the low end of the companies' set-top box lineup. Neither manufacturer was willing to specify how much such products would actually cost, but knowledgeable sources agree that the ADB model iCAN 1000 ( www.ADBGlobal.com ) looks like a $35 device and the Visionetics prototype ( www.visionetics.com.tw ) would also cost less than $50. Predictably, neither ADB nor Visionetics came away from the cable show with contracts for its products.

Both gizmos were in Sony's booth because they support "Passage," the cross-platform technology system that Sony has been trying to introduce to cable operators for nearly two years. Passage technology allows equipment from multiple vendors to co-exist on legacy digital cable networks. ( www.sonypassage.com )

"It could be an option," said ADB Marketing Director Kathy Wolfe. "It would be an easy transition in a Passage environment. It's a concept that we can quickly turn into reality. We have software-based conditional access and we could download a software solution if an operator wants it."

WAYS NOT TO SAY YES

Finding what the cable operators wanted was truly the major dilemma at the generally upbeat annual convention in early May. The emergence of technology solutions for video-on-demand, voice-over-Internet Protocol and digital video recorders was more lively than during the past three or four years, as was the promise of even more radical technologies.

Most notably, buzz began about the Next-Generation Network Architec-ture (NGNA) project, funded by such large multiple system operators as Comcast, Time-Warner Cable and Cox.

Their secretive plan envisions exploiting the digital infrastructure. NGNA is being created independently of CableLabs, the industry's technology consortium, although it now appears that CableLabs will be called in to bless the venture when the big MSOs reveal their agenda. Meanwhile, more than 150 technology vendors-salivating for sales to the MSO behemoths-have offered input to the NGNA initiative, although some vendors told me about their concerns that the approach is still short-sighted.

Almost universally, hardware and programming suppliers in New Orleans complained quietly that the MSOs keep finding new ways to avoid saying "yes" to the proposals heaped upon them. Exhibitors frustratingly acknowledged that neither are they hearing "no" to their offers. Rather, they are facing endless examinations, field trials and functionality tests.

The two landmark pavilions at either end of the sprawling convention center most stunningly represented the gap between cable's present and future.

The "Broadband Home" showcased dozens of products, from high-definition TV and high-speed Internet access products to a Web-enabled refrigerator and an array of home network products including videophones. A Jacuzzi with a built-in HDTV monitor and big-screen monitors in every room caught plenty of attention, as did the sarcastic birdbath on the ersatz "front lawn," made from a supine Dish Network satellite antenna.

Although cable operators were awed at the variety of home entertainment and information devices that could be powered through a cable TV connection, almost all the gizmos had, in fact, been displayed at Consumer Electronics Shows during the past few years.

CABLENET, NOT YET

Several hundred yards away-and seemingly several years into the future-was "CableNet," a collection of young technologies. Familiar vendors showed prototypes of network control, VOD and interactive TV access devices, and startups offered concepts such as integrated telephone/TV services and more interactive TV prototypes.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of cable's inertia came on the opening day of the convention. Moderator John Clark, president of the technically oriented Society of Cable & Telecommunications Engineers, bluntly asked a panel of MSO chief technology officers, during a discussion of DVRs and VOD, "What features should a cable DVR have, such as 30-second skip?"

For the longest moment, no one said anything.

Although the techies-in-chief were not on the front lines of the advertising angst about commercial skipping, they were well aware that their companies were confronting a topic that could stymie commercial plans.

Finally, Tony Werner, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Liberty Media Corp. insisted that it should be a marketplace decision. He and his fellow panelists tried to steer the discussion toward the value of on-demand systems that would allow headend analysis of how ads are skipped or when the commercials are watched.

Pondering the impact of such services may be the best excuse for the MSOs' reluctance to say "yes."