CES: Convergence Closer to Reality

During the "Digital TV Transition" session at the Consumer Electronics Show, the countdown clock from the FCC's Web site (www.dtv.gov) was periodically projected onto the conference hall's big screen.
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Special to TV Technology

LAS VEGAS


(click thumbnail)More than 140,000 attendees jammed CES2007, which featured technology products from 2,700 exhibitors and over 1.8 million net square feet of exhibit space.During the "Digital TV Transition" session at the Consumer Electronics Show, the countdown clock from the FCC's Web site (www.dtv.gov) was periodically projected onto the conference hall's big screen. The clock should have read 769 days, 7 hours and ticking down the minutes and seconds, which it did at the beginning of the session. But some digital gremlin sneaked in during the hour, and suddenly the clock showed 1,327 days... seemingly adding two years to the cutoff.

The surreptitious Internet gaffe generated panelist musing and audience amusement about whether to trust anything about the DTV transition and its implementation. (Even an FCC official in the conference hall could not explain the untimely Web site malfunction after calling into his headquarters from the conference room.)

Real problems surrounding the DTV cut-off--beyond the short-term Web site distraction--were the centerpiece of the hour discussion, during which the panelists agreed that the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline will be met.

"We certainly hope it will stick," said John Taylor, vice president of public affairs at LG Electronics and chair of the HDTV Committee of the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES. David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, also expected that Congress will hold to that date, although he acknowledged that, "You never know what's going to happen until it's just about ready."

Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association acknowledged that if Congress intends to change the 2009 analog broadcasting cutoff, it must act within the coming year to handle the array of ancillary issues accompanying the transition. His comments fueled a discussion about mandatory retransmission on cable systems of broadcast DTV multicasts, with McSlarrow reiterating that such multichannel carriage is not negotiable.

EDUCATION GAP

The panel also focused on the immense public education challenge. Despite the speakers' promises to support informational programs, the array of fundamental questions from the audience raised the prospect that the general public--which is far less informed--may be wildly confused by the informational campaigns now being planned.

Much of the panel discussion centered on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's plan to distribute $1.5 billion of coupons to subsidize digital-to-analog set-top boxes that will enable current TV monitors to display ATSC signals. Donovan criticized the original NTIA plan, which would prohibit coupon subsidies to homes that do not subscribe to cable or satellite service.

"A converter box coupon program should be available to anyone with an over-the-air set in the home," Donovan said. Taylor took it a step further, suggesting that Congress may have to allocate "more money to support the coupon program."

MARTIN'S VIEWPOINT

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in an on-stage discussion the following day with CEA President Gary Shapiro, veered away from the DTV coupon program, noting only that the commission "has put in place the rules and carriage rights and obligations" for media operators.

As for the public information program, Martin said, "It is going to require some education on behalf of everyone to make sure that consumers... recognize this is an exciting opportunity."

Martin offered views on other transition factors. He cited the "innovation" that will emerge, singling out the "mobile to mobile" prospects and citing a Samsung demonstration at CES of its A-VSB technology for mobile reception of DTV signals.

In a widely headlined disclosure, the Chairman announced that the FCC would not issue blanket waivers to cable companies to back away from their support of CableCARD technology. Martin insisted that by Christmas 2008, consumers should be able to "take advantage of what we're seeing on the floor," a reference to the "digital cable ready" TV receivers that were widely displayed at CES.

CONVERGENCE LARGE AND SMALL

Martin's references to CES exhibits underscored the convergence and overlapping industry objectives that permeated the 40th anniversary International CES. The increasing crossover between home computer technology and TV emerged in many ways. For example, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, in his CES keynote, demonstrated an upgraded Xbox 360 that has embedded Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) software, enabling the videogame console to function as a broadband set-top box.

The IPTV/Xbox will be available by year end. Although customers were not yet announced, is it expected that the emerging telephone company TV ventures will be the initial distributors, with some speculation suggesting that Microsoft itself may try to develop a standalone IPTV venture using the enhanced gaming devices.

Sony unveiled a line of Bravia LCD TV sets that are designed to receive HD video programs via broadband connections, an indicator of the integration of PC delivery and conventional TV display. Sony's emphasis, like many other TV makers, was on 1080p displays, moving the emphasis from 720p and 1080i units, which had been the centerpiece of CES in recent years.

Another approach to cross-platform video came from SanDisk Corp., which makes a variety of computer storage devices. "USBTV," a system based on the "thumb drive" portable storage gadgets, was unveiled as a process that lets consumers move digital content from PCs to TV sets. SanDisk also created the USBTV Forum to stimulate supplier participation. Akimbo Systems and Guba, Internet TV content aggregators, are the first content distributors to sign up for the service, and MovieLink (an Internet motion picture firm owned by Hollywood studios) is working with the Forum.

The initial USBTV concept allows users to load movies onto a flash memory-enabled drive, which is then placed into a special cradle attached to TV set. In Las Vegas demonstrations, SanDisk displayed the movies on large-screen TV monitors. The customized USB drive itself includes an elegant remote control for viewing the stored digital content. Among the manufacturers participating in the forum initially are LG Electronics, Mitsubishi Digital Electronics and Pioneer Electronics.

Meanwhile, other CES venues focused on mobility, such as the Verizon Wireless, which showcased its expanded V CAST mobile phone content line-up, including bundles of shows from MediaFLO, the Qualcomm offshoot that is launching a nationwide video-to-mobile phone service in March. MediaFLO announced program redistribution deals with CBS, NBC and Viacom's MTV Networks.

At the small end, portable media players proliferated, including the Sirius "backseat" audio-video tuner, a $300 kit that will display limited TV programming in Sirius radio-equipped cars. Initial programming includes MTV Networks content.

At the other extreme of the display evolution, the "inches" competition among big-screen makers notched up as Sharp unveiled a 108-inch LCD Aquos monitor--five inches larger than Panasonic's year-old $80,000 103-inch plasma monitor. Elsewhere on the display front, Sony displayed a 27-inch Organic Light Emitting Diode monitor, far larger than the handheld-device OLED screens of previous shows. But Toshiba and Canon abandoned their much-hyped SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emitter Display) monitors, which were deemed too costly in light of the falling prices for LCD and plasma displays.

MOXI GOES RETAIL & OTHER SHOPPING OPTIONS

Moxi, the digital media recorder from Digeo Inc., which debuted five years ago at CES and then took a cable-centric set-top tack, is now back on the retail track. Digeo plans to begin marketing a "next-generation Moxi" box by April. Although details about price and distribution are not ready, Digeo CEO Mike Fidler said, "The proliferation of HD devices and programming, the growing abundance of digital content and the increasingly sophisticated expectations of consumers make this a perfect time to offer Moxi more broadly."

Meanwhile, SlingMedia expanded its line of "place-shifting" technology, and newcomers such as Monsoon Multimedia unveiled new wireless video streaming recording functions using its HAVA platform.

Elsewhere, long-time cable partners demonstrated revised tactics to handle the evolving market. Zodiac Interactive (the new name for Zodiac Gaming, a nascent set-top box cable games provider) showcased its array of video/social-networking services, including a Yahoo!-powered local search feature and a version of the FlickR photo-sharing service. The Zodiac interface, displayed on Scientific-Atlanta set-top boxes, featured "Insta," a program-browsing feature for customizing the viewing experience.

The increasing presence of digital services adds to CES's complexity. MediaZone, a "social video" broadband service that includes off-network content as well as original foreign and domestic online video, exemplified the range of new choices available to the intertwined PC and TV customers.

Moreover, the highly visible feud between high-definition DVD formats (Blu-ray and HD DVD)--made more confusing by the combined "Total DVD" products that put programs in both formats onto the same sliver platter--underscored the competitive chaos that is CES.

In that context, the unexplained malfunctioning FCC Web site clock may have offered a good symbol of what lies ahead.