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Digital TV links: crowded house

12-24-07, Rick Merritt

Consumer electronics companies are asking the Federal Communications Commission to mandate that their products be given access to applications and services running on the headend systems of cable-TV providers. Their so-called Digital Cable Ready-Plus proposal forms an alternative to the Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP), a Java-based software environment for the set-top boxes now being fielded by cable companies.

The debate comes at a time when application software delivered over networks into and inside the digital home is taking on greater significance for both service and systems companies. "This will be the next big industry wave, and I think you will see a bit of a land grab as people try to figure out where the revenue is in this model," said Jed Johnson, a director of systems engineering in the set-top box group of Motorola Inc.

The engineering work on the OCAP set-tops, now completed, had required OEMs to bolster their software skills. For its part, Motorola acquired three software companies to gear up for OCAP, said Johnson.

As cable-TV companies start deploying those set-tops, the Consumer Electronics Association has asked the FCC to allow them to use a signaling protocol to access capabilities running at cable-TV central offices. The Digital Living Network Alliance, a broad group of digital-home vendors, has piggybacked on the CEA request, saying that the DLNA could set standards that would let home gateways handle such protocols.

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At issue is whether next-generation cable services and applications should run only on a set-top box--the approach assumed for OCAP, developed by the CableLabs consortium of cable providers. Consumer companies want to let a broader group of their systems, including lower-performance products, access the services directly.

"You might not want to have all the complexity of running applications on your device if, for example, you just want to run a music player," said Glen Stone, vice president of the networking and system architecture division of Sony Electronics.

Straight to cable
While the issue is debated at the FCC, another group of vendors, including the 1394 Trade Association, is taking the case directly to CableLabs. They are asking the consortium to create a network version of its Open Cable specification so OCAP software can run across various systems in the home.

TV and computer makers are also concerned about the OCAP requirement to certify every model using the software at a cost of as much as $100,000 each, said Bill Rose, a consultant who heads up marketing for the 1394 group. "That's OK for set-top boxes, where you only have a few models, but TV makers may have 10 to 20 models that change frequently, so it becomes onerous," Rose said.

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Many companies are also concerned about the relatively slow pace of innovation for standards such as OCAP. Johnson of Motorola noted IPTV carriers such as Verizon already offer networked video recorders on the Multimedia over Coax network, a capability CableLabs does not yet support.

An inside debate
The debate about links into the home comes at a time when multiple wired and wireless interconnects on systems within the home are vying to plug into the digital TV. The High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) is becoming a de facto standard on digital TVs, but advocates of FireWire and the Universal Serial Bus (USB), along with a handful of wireless contenders, are gearing up to play broader roles.

Silicon Image, the pioneer of HDMI, is developing mobile and networking technologies to extend the interface beyond TV. Meanwhile, the USB Implementers Forum is working on a variant to link digital TVs with mobile devices. And FireWire backers have developed software to get their link into a wider set of systems and uses.

Waiting in the wings is a host of wireless options, including 802.11n Wi-Fi, ultra- wideband and 60-GHz radios, including several proprietary variants of each.

"We would like to connect a bunch of different devices to each other, but each one has settled on a different standard," said Rose. "Even consumer companies are schizophrenic on this," with different internal groups backing different approaches, he added.

"It's a complex scenario, because every home is different and every technology has a different set of trade-offs," said Bhupen Shah, chief technology officer and co-founder of Sling Media (Foster City, Calif.).

As an experiment, Sling put a USB interface on its Solo box, launched in September. But next-generation products are more likely to communicate through a home network, Shah said.

The FCC is on the cusp of a decision about how it regulates the cable-TV industry that could influence which interfaces appear on tomorrow's digital home devices.

The commission mandated use of FireWire on set tops a decade ago as part of a wave of regulations aimed at opening up cable systems. But the mandate had little real impact because the interfaces initially lacked the software to be useful, and cable operators often disabled them.

An open interface "didn't fit their business model of controlling the experience of the interface and program guide," said Rose of the 1394 trade group. "In addition, they had problems with contractual agreements with content providers," who didn't want to see their programs available in compressed form on an open network.

The 1394 Trade Association lobbied the FCC recently to maintain the requirement for FireWire, in part because the software now exists to make it more useful. Members of the DLNA, meanwhile asked the FCC to require Ethernet ports and DLNA software as a better alternative. There's no word on when or if the FCC will rule on the issue, one of more than 100 pending before the commission.

HDMI rising
Several industry players said HDMI, not 1394, is becoming the interface of choice for digital TVs and set-tops. "What we are seeing is that 1394 has sort of had its day," said Stone of Sony.

Brian O'Rourke, a principal analyst for market watcher In-Stat, agreed. "HDMI has already won," he said. "They are on the TVs, set-tops and high-def DVD systems. They have a fairly full ecosystem."

Startup Ambarella is supporting HDMI along with USB 2.0, analog video and flash cards on a next-generation high-def encoder chip for HD cameras to be shown at the Consumer Electronics Show next month. "In general, HDMI is the way to go," said Didier LeGall, executive vice president of the company. "USB is never likely to be mainstream for HD cameras, because it is a compressed link, but HDMI can be taken for granted."

By contrast, said In-Stat's O'Rourke, "USB is working its way into some consumer applications, like MP3 players and cameras, but I don't know if it will ever be in a majority of TVs."

FireWire is even further behind; "1394 is a story of being the second-choice interconnect in every market, so it hasn't been able to get economies of scale," O'Rourke said.

Johnson of Motorola was even more adamant on the issue. "I see FireWire losing traction. We'd like to see the FCC requirement for it removed because the interface isn't being used," he said.

The 1394 crowd will shoot back at CES next month, demonstrating version 2.0 of 1394 networking software from the High-Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance (HANA) running premium content from NBC Universal and three cable providers over five media types, including coax. HANA is holding plugfests to prepare the code to appear in products, probably in late 2008.

The group held a similar demo recently for FCC members. "They were quite impressed--there was a comment that we have the 'easy button' for consumers," said Rose.

The 1394 group also announced last week that it had completed the spec for its 3.2-Gbit/second version (see story, page 16). Most chips use the 800-Mbit/s version today, although some are expected to roll out 1.6-Gbit/s products early next year.

O'Rourke said he was skeptical whether the new networking software and higher speeds would help 1394 regain momentum.

Wireless wild cards
Wireless options are the big wild cards in linking the digital living room.

The DLNA proponents want to drive devices to Ethernet, Internet Protocol and, typically, 892.11n Wi-Fi. Although rising in popularity, "these are managed networks and not really that easy for consumers to use," said Rose of 1394.

O'Rourke said he sees the wireless USB flavor of ultrawideband taking off starting in 2009. "There are enough companies driving the silicon, and it has plenty of user advantages," he said.

Wireless USB chips are hitting the market now at $15--well below the$25 to $30 entry costs that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi faced, he noted. Although dogged by underwhelming throughput to date, wireless USB still represents the "point of the spear" that could drive UWB uptake in consumer electronics generally he said.

The first chips for 60-GHz radios may not be far behind. Backers of the so-called Wireless HD version of the technology will gather at CES to promote their technology, which aims to deliver as much as 4 Gbits/s over 10 meters.

Initial silicon is expected to aim only at ac-powered devices, and it may take much of 2008 for the group to complete compatibility tests. Nevertheless, the technology has broad aims as a "unifying link for CE and PC devices connecting to displays," said John LeMoncheck, a former Silicon Image executive who now is helping to drive the wireless technology as CEO of chip startup SiBeam.