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Cable Sees Progress In Interactive ‘DCR’ CE Devices

Watch for an invigorated cable presence at this year’s International CES, if progress made throughout 2005 is any indication.

Several milestones punctuated 2005 as cable providers continued to develop agreements for equipment and services that can be sold at retail. One, from mid-November, was an agreement with Microsoft to include signal protection mechanisms for high-value cable services, within personal computers sold as home media centers.

In industry parlance, the agreement with Microsoft is called “OCUR,” which stands for “OpenCable Unidirectional Receiver.” Readers of this publication should be fairly well familiarized with OpenCable, which aims to make cable descrambling equipment portable between cable systems.

All digital and high-definition TVs selling at retail, and described as “digital-cable-ready,” are based on OpenCable. They work by including a slot for a CableCARD; the CableCARD itself is furnished by cable providers to customers who desire high-value (scrambled) services.

The OCUR arrangement with Microsoft extends that CableCARD functionality to home PCs, and, specifically, to those home PCs sold to function as home media centers.

OCUR is a significant milestone not just for cable, because it solves a critical problem for video copyright owners: how to allow their video programming to air over broadband connections to PCs, without becoming “Napsterized.”

Practically, and at a retail level, OCUR means this: a holiday ’06 timeline for home media center PCs, sold at retail, through which consumers can receive cable video programming — including the scrambled channels, if desired.

Computers outfitted with the fruits of the OCUR agreement will contain an outboard slot for a CableCARD, which will descramble the high-value content. As such, the PC will follow a set of rules that is identical to existing, unidirectional TVs: Consumers can watch shows and record them, using the same copy-protection methodologies as stipulated by copyright owners (copy once, copy freely, etc.)

Cable operators continue to work on a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS), which would help protect high-value video services without the need for a slide-in card. In July, the Federal Communications Commission expressed interest in such a technique, because it goes even further to remove costs from navigational devices (set-tops or TVs with built-in set-tops).

Another notable milestone in cable’s pursuit of service portability: Two successful rounds of interoperability testing for OCAP products and services. OCAP, or the OpenCable Applications Platform, is the software side of OpenCable.

A form of middleware, OCAP exists to abstract away the technical nuances of varying set-top box flavors, so that applications developers can “write once, run anywhere” — and so that cable services can be sold at retail and can be geographically portable across cable service providers.

The first interoperability event, held in August, attracted 28 companies representing the hardware, middleware, interactive television and network electronics sectors. A notable success during the event was the inclusion of three electronic program guides, developed by three different cable providers, that had successfully been ported into an OCAP environment.

Without an OCAP implementation, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make the guide nationally portable, across different hardware types — which underscores the importance of the interoperability accomplishments.

The presence of several content owners in the interoperability tests, including ABC/Disney, is also notable, because it shows that applications are moving beyond the theoretical, to the practical.

ABC and other content owners, including Showtime Networks and GSN: The Network for Games, were at the interoperability event to test an OCAP subset known as “ETV,” for Enhanced TV. ETV applications work by embedding various types of data into a digital video stream, including program links, images and triggers.

CableLabs released the ETV application messaging specification in 2005, and the interoperability test was the first time any ETV applications ran on live cable plant.

ETV was written for launching on fielded and new cable set-tops or digital TV receivers. This way, program owners have the widest possible reach for ETV-based applications.ETV applications will also run on OCAP-based devices, via a plug-in module.

A second round of OCAP interoperability tests were wrapping up just as this update was being written; more are scheduled for this year.

After years in development, it appears that the many moving pieces that surround OCAP, and its goals — nationally portable cable applications, on nationally portable hardware — are finally coming together.

Watch for two-way digital-cable- ready products to emerge from companies including Samsung Electronics, Panasonic, LG Electronics and Digeo throughout this year. Toward the end of the year, watch for Microsoft-based PCs to emerge, with the potential to descramble and display high-value video content.

Lastly, watch for copyright owners and program networks to get increasingly active on the creative side of OCAP and ETV, making applications that attract consumers to their shows (and the gear that displays them).