Beyond the Box

If there’s one thing that stands out like a sore thumb with all those architecture-neutral, new-world, flat-screen HD sets, it’s all those old-world cable boxes and the unruly wiring that goes with them. This seems especially true for wall-mounted units. But all that is about to change as major manufacturers begin hiding the next generation of cable boxes inside new DTV sets. And at the same time, the cable industry hopes to satisfy FCC concerns over the next tier of consumer services, as well.

Earlier this month Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, ADB, Digeo and Intel all formally signed a comprehensive agreement with America’s six largest cable firms, including Comcast, Cox, Time Warner, Charter, Bright House and Cablevision to develop technology compliant with CableLab’s tru2way technology that could eventually lead to the demise of the cable set top box. The agreement will affect more than 80 percent of the U.S. cable market, according to the National Cable Television Association. Eventually, the NCTA said, it will affect virtually every cable subscriber in America.

(click thumbnail)JAVA BASED

The technical two-way heart of this box-inside-the-box concept that a wide array of other parties also plan to use (i.e., TiVo), consists of Java-based, upgradeable middleware that enables the so-called “tru2way” technology developed by CableLabs. Beyond the mere streamlined cosmetics produced by hiding the box, the NCTA and CEA believe the agreement with the CE companies will help establish a competitive market for two-way cable-ready products and services. (The “tru2way” brand replaced the use of the term “OpenCable Platform” for marketing the interactive video platform to consumers.)

While tru2way still requires consumers to obtain cable cards from their local systems (a bit of a nuisance that never caught on with the public several years ago), this next-gen cable card could prove more popular because tru2way accesses popular services such as VOD, DVR, and program start-over options, among others.

NCTA Vice President and General Counsel Neal Goldberg said the main reason cable cards never caught on with consumers several years ago was because they were essentially one way-only devices.

“A common misconception is that there are one-way or two-way cable cards,” Goldberg said. “But in reality, all cards are inherently two-way. They all serve the purpose for two-way devices, but they only work two-way if they’re in a device that [allows them to]. Now the middleware in this two-way technology makes it future-proof because it allows downloading for upgrades.”

tru2way middleware upgrades will be provided by other manufacturers. The application’s software (EPG, interactive TV, VOD, etc.) will be updated periodically by Comcast, Cox and other cablers, using the DOCSIS (Data-Over-Cable System Interface Specification) communications “path” built into new DTV sets. Thus, tru2way will allow cable firms and middleware developers to upgrade systems literally overnight—in sharp contrast to the often cumbersome methods of upgrading cable services through its first few decades of existence. (On a more basic level, cablers will no longer be required to supply their own boxes for subscriber rental, at a huge cost savings.)

According to Jud Cary, CableLab’s vice president for video technology policy and deputy general counsel, tru2way can also be both hardware and software.

“As a middleware, it is licensed from CableLabs and ‘implemented’ by Sony for their specific device,” Cary said. “The middleware abstracts the hardware and exposes a common set of Java APIs [application program interfaces] that applications can run on, similar, for example, to the Windows operating system.” tru2way will provide cable operators and an array of retail devices with “a common, national footprint” for deploying interactive applications, Cary said. (tru2way is the consumer-level brand for OpenCable and OCAP, both of which were designed to provide a common platform for interactive digital video on a global basis.) Therefore, Cary said, future tru2way devices beyond DTV sets could be DVRs, mobile TV, and other digital products (including, yes, even future cable set-top boxes, should the desire for them ever arise again).


Sony was the first out of the gate to announce the tru2way agreement earlier this month. Edgar Tu, Sony America’s senior vice president of TV operations, said no specific timetable for a rollout of cable-ready Sony TV sets has been established yet.

“We cannot comment on how many, or if all Sony TVs, will offer [tru2way], or how much it will cost,” Tu said, adding that Sony typically does not comment on negotiations or agreements with other parties, acknowledging only that “the agreement [with the six cable firms] gives manufacturers like Sony an opportunity to offer a different experience to consumers than the standard cable rental box.”

Cox Cable’s Steve Necessary, vice president of video product development, said the manufacturer-cabler arrangement should give consumers the confidence of knowing that newer applications (including Caller ID on the TV screen) will reliably work as a result of the tru2way middleware component.

More to the point, he said, “Some consumers will simply like the aesthetic advantages of a ‘no set-top box’ environment, as well as the lower monthly fees that go with CableCARDs as compared to STBs. Cox, for its part, benefits by having provided another attractive option to our customers. And when they’re happy, we’re happy.” (Comcast, the nation’s largest cable firm, would not comment on the tru2way agreement.)

There is also a political side to the tru2way initiative: If the industry can satisfy some long-held concerns at the FCC, it could quite possibly avoid any regulatory mandates down the road aimed at ensuring wider consumer access to two-way and other newer cable services.

“We’re pleased this technical challenge has been addressed through a voluntary, private-sector solution,” said Gary Shapiro, president/CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. “And we look forward to working with our cable colleagues to ensure Americans across the country have access to high-value cable content, while using the equipment of their [own] choosing.”

Goldberg said the manufacturers’ agreement stands in contrast to a set maker merely signing on for a license to use a specific technology.

“This is really the equivalent of what the FCC might have done with some regulation,” he said. “The agreement is a comprehensive framework for development, deployment and support of true two-way technology.”