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Cable, CE Planners Work On Interactivity

With the Consumer Electronics Show as a backdrop, discussions will continue this week between cable providers and equipment manufacturers about how to best advance interactivity into televisions and other entertainment-oriented devices.

Participants in the executive committee of Cable Television Laboratories (CableLabs), which consists of CEOs of major cable operators, will meet with executives from various consumer electronics companies to advance discussions toward a mutually agreeable result, said Don Dulchinos, VP, advance platforms and services for the Louisville, Colo.-based research and development consortium.

“Cable continues to work closely with consumer electronics manufacturers,” said Dulchinos. “Of particular interest is how we enable consumers to directly purchase equipment that works well with a broad range of cable products and services.”

Because cable’s broadband product mix is expanding and evolving nearly as quickly as do consumer electronics devices, the need to stay synchronized with manufacturers is all the more critical, Dulchinos added.

The bulk of the cable industry’s efforts reside in the CableLabs OpenCable project, which was designed to cover hardware and software elements of advanced television-based interactivity. The hardware specification has been complete for some time, Dulchinos says, and the software portion, dubbed OCAP, for “OpenCable Application Platform”, is expected in early January.

The OCAP specification will parallel the European Digital Video Broadcast group’s Multimedia Home Platform, known as DVB-MHP. This strategy benefits content developers as well as hardware suppliers, because it moves towards a common software platform for advanced interactive services running on MPEG-2-based digital video networks.

The OpenCable hardware specification was completed nearly a year before the July 2000 deadline set by the FCC for removable security de-scrambling modules. To help retailers develop the marketplace for set-top boxes, the cable industry recently agreed to also make set tops with embedded security available in the retail channel. That means the set tops cable operators routinely provide to their customers, with built-in signal security mechanisms, will be available at retail, Dulchinos explained.

“Advancing embedded-security set tops into the retail environment is a transition strategy, ” Dulchinos said, adding: “The intent is to help retailers attract consumers to cable-oriented hardware, like set-top boxes.” Most consumers, he noted, are accustomed to getting set-top boxes directly from their cable provider at the time of installation, and are not accustomed to buying them at retail outlets.

To help retailers discern what type of set tops they’ll be able to use in a given geographic area, CableLabs will rely heavily on its Go2BroadbandSM project, originally developed to link retailers with cable plant readiness information that would help them sell cable modems.

Go2Broadband is a Web-based, highly secure method for retailers and electronic retailers to ascertain whether a prospect can receive cable broadband services from the local cable provider. At its core is a database, developed and managed by CableLabs in partnership with its cable service provider constituents, that manages information about what cabled areas are available for what types of broadband services.

Go2Broadband logically began with high-speed Internet services, so that manufacturers and retailers could sell the interoperable cable modems that enable the service. Leveraging the Go2Broadband database to link retailers with similar information about embedded security types by geographic region is a logical extension of Go2Broadband, CableLabs executives said.

In practice, it works like this: A consumer walks into a store that sells CE devices, and opts to purchase a set-top rather than lease it from a cable service provider. An employee of the retail store types the consumer’s ZIP code, or other identifying information, into the Web-based Go2Broadband database. The search finds what types of set-tops, including those with embedded security, can be used at the consumer’s house.

These things will take center stage for cable executives at this year’s CES, as cable and consumer electronics manufacturers continue to translate broadband advancements into device features that attract consumers to both categories.

This column was submitted by CableLabs.