Bi-Directional DTV Software Updates

Unlike analog-based television sets, today’s digital televisions are chock full of complex software. Like computers, digital televisions have high-speed processors with operating systems and system-level software to make them run. While these digital and high definition technology advancements result in ultra-crisp picture quality and sound, digital televisions are a lot less stable than analog TVs. And also just like a computer, digital TVs will inevitably require software updates to fix bugs and support the latest for DTV products which are still maturing.

Take, for example, the soon-to-be available advanced digital cable-ready television sets which have integrated hardware and software capable of receiving video/audio from a bi-directional cable network. These sets have complex software that has taken many years to develop. Of course the software has been thoroughly tested by quality assurance teams, but like any software technology, there will be bugs.

Furthermore, the lack of commercially deployed bi-directional networks to test against limits the scope of the testing possibilities. Unfortunately, this could cause products to ship with unknown and untested bugs.

Even in the digital sets which do not include bi-directional capability, such as today’s popular LCD and plasma DTV devices, there are software issues. Several manufacturers have been forced to deliver firmware updates to their consumer customers already. Today, manufacturers deliver updates to a consumer’s TV by mailing out media devices, such as USB drives, or by sending technicians to a person’s home. These methods are costly—$30 for a mailing and $250 for a visit—and result in negative brand image for both manufacturers and cable companies. They also require user interaction—plug the media device into the TV or wait for a technician to arrive.

In late 2003, a company was created by consumer electronics software experts to establish a less expensive software update delivery mechanism. The company, called UpdateLogic, has been developing the technology and relationships for its UpdateTV services for three years and expects to be included in sets shipping this year.

The DTV software support problem is industry-wide and not specific to just a few manufacturers. In fact, industry standards were written by a collective and cooperative group of manufacturers, cable operators and semiconductor suppliers. More specifically, back in 2003, members of the ATSC recognized the need to create a specification to define how to deliver software data to digital televisions. Out of this, the T3/S13 working group subcommittee was born. Two years later, in November 2005, the A/97 specification was approved.

UpdateTV is based on the ATSC A/97 Software Data Download Service (SDDS) standard. The A/97 standard specifies a data service that may be used to download software to a device using an MPEG-2 transport stream. The service may be used to deliver upgrades of firmware, operating system software, device driver software or any other type of software that resides in a DTV device.

The SDDS standard is based on the “2-layer carousel scenario” of several previously written ATSC standards, including the DSI, DII and DDB messaging protocols. Top-level signaling is accomplished via a new service VCT (defined by A/65) type. Announcement is accomplished via schedule information added to the DSI (originally defined by A/90) and the DII is used for some parts of the module signaling. In all cases, a software data download shall be signaled and contained within the ATSC television broadcast transport using technology called a “virtual channel.”

Specifically with UpdateTV, UpdateLogic uses ATSC-compliant terrestrial broadcast bandwidth from PBS stations nationwide as the point of entry for distribution to maximize the reach of the UpdateTV network. Terrestrial broadcast allows direct access to DTV receivers with antennas and direct entry to cable networks without the need for additional cable infrastructure. The A/97 standard was created primarily for one-way networks (terrestrial and uni-directional cable products—UDCP), however, the software update data can also be efficiently delivered across bi-directional cable networks, where there is an even greater need for software updates due to the increased complexity of bi-directional cable DTVs.

To enable the terrestrial network, UpdateLogic will place data insertion servers and other related equipment at major terrestrial stations in the PBS network throughout the U.S. The TV manufacturer sends a software patch to the UpdateLogic central network control. UpdateLogic then sends the patch to UpdateTV-enabled PBS member stations. The UpdateTV servers insert the data into the broadcast stream for terrestrial distribution and the terrestrial signal is then received by UpdateTV-enabled receivers with antennas. Cable TV operators, via a contract with UpdateLogic, simply rebroadcast the PBS terrestrial signal containing the software update to UpdateTV-enabled devices connected to the cable operator’s network.

To get the software update, a television receiver must be enabled with a special “agent” software program that monitors the television broadcast streams for available software updates. At the appropriate time, the agent program will transparently “tune” to the appropriate broadcast stream and perform a behind-the-scenes software download. The image is then installed on the TV as an upgrade to the current software.

Since the A/97 standard was created with cable carriage in mind, the efforts and the infrastructure necessary to use the solution in cable networks is simplified and reduced.

As shown in the illustration, the UpdateTV Network provides for distribution via over-the-air and Open Cable digital network environments.

Already, six major manufacturers have signed evaluation level contracts with UpdateLogic including Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Samsung and Sharp. What’s more, four of the six are already participating in field tests of UpdateTV. In the field tests, four PBS member stations (in Boston, Denver, Indianapolis and San Diego) and four cable operators (Comcast, Cox, Insight and Time Warner) are working to bear out the technology.

UpdateLogic expects that televisions enabled with UpdateTV will reach the U.S. market as early as December 2006.

Patrick Sansonetti manages all sales, marketing and business development efforts for UpdateLogic, Inc., which includes relationships with device manufacturers, semiconductor vendors and other third parties. He holds a B.A. in Math and Computer Science from the College of the Holy Cross.