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HD Boxes Set To Highlight Cable Show

High-definition television will take center stage at this week’s National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) show, as manufacturers introduce expanded lines of HD-capable digital cable receivers and cable operators continue to explore opportunities for selling HD cable equipment and services through retailers.

Meanwhile, the pending status of a Federal Communications Commission decision on a one-way plug-and-play cable equipment interoperability agreement has prevented consumer electronics manufacturers from introducing fully integrated HDTVs with point of deployment (POD) conditional access card slots this year. Cable converter box makers, meanwhile, continue to sell set-top boxes with integrated conditional access systems complying with either the Scientific Atlanta or Motorola security platforms.

This means national distribution of standardized plug-and-play equipment through retail is at least a year away. Nevertheless, certain cable operators are moving quickly to make deals with select retailers to sell their equipment and services in localized markets.

This year, manufacturers of digital cable converter boxes are slated to unveil new HDTV-capable offerings with advanced features. Many will be incorporating built-in hard drives that record and playback both standard and high-definition content.

To underscore the activity, the NCTA has arranged to present an HD pavilion, which will contain displays from HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Discovery Networks, ESPN, A&E, Madison Square Garden Network, Bravo and HDNet. Also slated is Microsoft, which will demonstrate its Xbox gaming platform connected to various HDTV displays.

Television manufacturers will show some of their digital cable-ready products, including some of the first prototypes of cable converters with point-of-deployment conditional access security card slots. Samsung said it would show three such boxes, all based on the one-way plug-and-play agreement. However, the company said it has not yet decided if it will market cable set-top boxes.

The following manufacturers were to display at the show new HD cable converter boxes with integrated conditional access systems.

Motorola Broadband Communications, based in Horsham, Pa., said that Comcast has committed to deploy in select markets this summer a series of digital converter boxes that receive HDTV signals, offer video-on-demand and include personal video recording (PVR) systems.

The models are part of Motorola’s new DCT6200 digital set-top box family, which includes the DCT6208 (with an 80GB hard drive), the DCT6212 (with a 120GB hard drive) and the DCT 6216 (with a 160GB hard drive). All will play and record both standard definition and HDTV signals, and include an integrated broadband cable modem.

The units offer both DVI-HDCP output and IEEE-1394 with DTCP. Motorola expects to begin distributing the boxes starting this summer. The company will also demonstrate a pair of Broadband Media Centers, designed with home networking functionality in mind. The media centers, which are listed as part of the Motorola Broadband BMC9000 family, incorporate HDTV tuning capability, digital video recording, and integrated digital cable modems.

Both models are based on Digeo/Moxi digital reference designs, and are distinguished from each other by the ability to serve either one or two TVs, simultaneously. The one-TV solution (model numbers are still being determined) offers HDTV watch-and-record capability. The two-TV solution has the same core functionality plus dual tuners and the ability to serve two separate television sets from one central box. Both models will include both DVI-HDCP for uncompressed digital video output and IEEE-1394 for compressed digital video output. The Broadband Media Centers are slated for distribution through cable operators starting in the second half of 2003.

Pace Micro will unveil a pair of HD cable converter boxes with built-in conditional access security licensed from both Motorola and Scientific Atlanta. The DC550 is being distributed now in select Time Warner cable territories and uses SA’s conditional access technology. The box has DVI-HDCP uncompressed digital output and HD component analog outputs. The IEEE-1394 with DTCP interface is also available as an option, although Time Warner elected to go with out it in their initial order.

The second box, which is due in the fourth quarter, is the DC755. It is based on the Motorola conditional access system and also offers DVI-HDCP digital output, analog HD component video output and offers IEEE-1394 with DTCP output as an option. Pace-Micro has no plans to start direct distribution through retailers, although it is working on distribution solutions with cable operators who have made arrangements with area retailers to sell its equipment and services.

Pioneer will show a pair of HDTV capable set-top boxes including the currently shipping Voyager 3510HD, which includes DVI-HDCP output. The box integrates a conditional access system licensed from Scientific Atlanta, and lists Time Warner among its early customers.

The company is also expected to show its BDV-4000 HD-capable digital cable converter box with a built-in 80GB hard drive. The unit is said to be capable of recording almost 15 hours of HD programming or almost 50 hours of standard definition content. Slated to ship in the fourth quarter, the BDV-4000 is to include both DVI-HDCP and IEEE-1394 with DTCP digital interfaces, as well as HD component video outputs. Pioneer’s Echo Passport software enables the use of a Passport onscreen guide enhanced with robust program search tools to help viewers easily find favorite programs and program the unit to record them.

Scientific-Atlanta will unveil a pair of HDTV-capable set-top decoder boxes earmarked for distribution through retailers. The Explorer 3270HD ($499 suggested retail) is billed as a third-generation HD set-top that provides more audio options and enhanced picture stretch and zoom capabilities. It includes a single-tuner for 64 and 256 QAM modulated cable signals. The Explorer 3270HD is available together with Cox Communication’s HDTV service at retail stores in Phoenix, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Pensacola and Northern Virginia, with other areas coming soon.

Also slated is the Explorer 8000HD home entertainment server, which initially will be sold directly to cable operators, but will eventually be offered through retail distribution. The unit combines an HD-capable tuner with an HD-capable personal video recorder, and will be available with several hard drive size options.