Getting to Know ‘The Plug-and-Play’ Agreement
by Leslie Ellis // December 23 2002
It’s four days since the agreement emerged from the National Cable Television Association and the Consumer Electronics Association to build digital cable set-tops into digital TVs, and it’s two weeks before the Consumer Electronics Show. Suddenly, signs of useful momentum for the New Year are coming into view.
[It's also the week of Christmas. If you're like me, the cards are definitely going to be late, and it just occurred to you to wonder whether it's too late to shop online, so as to avoid the stroller-wielding mall aggressors.]
Which is a long way of saying, rip this out and toss it into the stack of stuff to read en route to Las Vegas. The understanding of what happened last Thursday will have more of an impact on holiday shopping seasons to come, than on this week’s shopping sprees. But it is the conversation that will occupy most of the talk time at CES.
The fact that there will even be a linkage of holiday shoppers, consumer electronics, and cable in a year or so is reason enough for restrained celebration. Restrained, because it’s easy to glance at last week’s deal, and let worry turn into exasperation: Is it enough? Shouldn’t a two-way cable-ready DTV set – what the agreement calls an “interactive” cable-ready DTV set – come first, not second, to market?
Regardless of where you stand, bear in mind that the agreement announced last Thursday morning tackles the part of the “digital television transition” that rises most fervently to the top of cable’s strategic concerns: Its undesired addiction to two types of scrambling mechanisms for premium services.
How many times have you heard of it, or complained of it yourself? For me, the answer is: Often enough that I’ve almost forgotten the origins of the complaint.
A review of the situation brings it back to equipment portability for consumers. Said another way, the lack of equipment portability within cable doesn’t do much for national retail chains, selling consumer electronics.
The reason you walk into Best Buy, or even The Great Indoors, and see the gorgeousness of HDTV – only to sigh and shake your head when you see the Away Team’s name on the picture – is that it is hard for a retailer to sell a piece of expensive TV technology that works in Pittsburgh, but not in Green Bay.
Those two cities were chosen deliberately. Pittsburgh, now served by Comcast, is a city whose cable constituents use set-tops made by Motorola. Green Bay’s cable constituents, customers of Time Warner Cable, get their services from boxes made by Scientific-Atlanta. There are hundreds of cities that are one, and not the other.
By competitive contrast, and as you well know, DirecTV and EchoStar rain a signal down on Pittsburgh and Green Bay, and it doesn’t matter if someone moves from one place to the other. After getting the dish back up on the new roof, the box inside works pretty much the same.
Last week’s agreement assures that consumer electronics devices with built-in digital cable set-tops will work in Green Bay and in Pittsburgh; in Charlotte and in Houston; and so on.
That means the HDTVs, cable-ready DTVs and other electronic gadgets that people buy from any of the dozen consumer electronics manufacturers in the deal, will come with POD slots. POD stands for “Point of Deployment,” and is a component of the CableLabs OpenCable spec. When the consumer gets the device home, and wants a premium TV service (HBO or Showtime, for example), the local cable operator sends a card that slips into the device, to descramble the premium services ordered.
It is when that consumer wants other stuff – two-way services, like VOD or SVOD, or wants to plug in a digital video recorder or recordable DVD player (they’re coming) – that the digital interfaces mentioned in the NCTA/CEA deal come into play. Those elements, as well as the “encoding rules” and copy protection elements of the agreement, will be described in the next installment of this column.
It’s easy to get lost or frustrated by the many complications of “the DTV transition.” One thing is important to remember: Last week’s deal was intended to benefit customers who spend dollars on expensive TV technologies, and on cable services — not to disenfranchise them. As a side bonus, each integrated set sold is one less $225 set-top that a cable provider has to buy and install.
An end of the year note: Little makes a technology writer happier than a motherlode of complicated issues to “translate.” From the number of times the word “complex” was used during last Thursday’s press conference, it looks like this intersection between cable and consumer electronics will spawn piles of column inches next year.
Happy holidays. This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
If She Wants The HDTV, Not The One-Carat Diamond …
by Leslie Ellis // December 09 2002
One of the more amusing bits of levity from last week’s Broadband Plus convention happened when Bill Geppert, VP/GM of Cox’s San Diego system, observed during a CTAM luncheon that 58% of women would rather receive an HDTV set than a 1 carat diamond for Christmas this year.
The statistic actually comes from the Consumer Electronics Association, which collected the evidence, via a survey, to point out that men aren’t the only consumers of electronic gadgetry. Also among the findings: 64% of women would rather unwrap a digital camera than a pair of half-carat diamond earrings.
Much mirthful murmuring followed Geppert’s observation. What would you, or the women in your life, rather have? The rock, or the HDTV? Yet the CEA’s efforts to raise awareness of females as technology consumers also raises an uncomfortable truth: Even those of us “in the industry,” and regardless of whether we’re male or female, aren’t really sure what we would buy, if we were to buy an HDTV set this Christmas. It’s uncomfortable because we’re supposed to know this stuff, being in the TV industry and all.
First, there’s the whole 1080i/720p thing. Which? Then there’s aesthetics: Plasma? Tube? Projection? Which? And there’s the farther out, but critical, conundrum about copy protection, and connectors. Who wants to drop a few thousand dollars on an HDTV set, only to find out in a few years that it lacks the correct plumbing for what you want to watch?
Then there’s the amount of available HD content – is it worth it? Or is it enough just to use the HD set as an eyeball-grabbing display for DVDs? (As a point of reference, that’s how the majority of HDTV owners use the technology: For playing DVDs, not for displaying cable or broadcast HD content.)
This week’s translation attempts to clarify some of the ambiguities of HDTV, from an “industrial consumer” standpoint. That is, you, the consumer, and a participant in the broadband industry.
Know that when you’re buying “an HDTV set,” you may be buying two things: A display, and a box. It has to do with linking the source of the HDTV signal to the display of the HDTV signal. Most manufacturers prefer to sell sources and displays separately, as components.
There are three main ways to link an HD tuner (the source) to an HD display: Via a separate, broadcast HDTV receiver (which requires an antenna on the roof); via a box you get from your local cable operator, or from a box you get from the other guys (DirecTV or EchoStar.)
Right now, the most common way to connect an HD source to an HD display is in analog, using what’s called “component video.” I’m glossing over this part, because reams of useful and well-written material exist on the subject. The important point is that it’s analog.
The hard part, and the battle still being fought, is the shift to a digital HDTV input. It’s an odd fact of life that HDTV, so commonly made synonymous with “digital TV,” does not have a standard digital “gazinta.” Said another way, there’s no unanimously adopted way right now to pour a digital signal into an HDTV display.
That’s changing, but, if you’re buying an HDTV this season, you’re best off to at least make sure it has a connector on the back labeled “DVI,” for “Digital Visual Input.” If you’re really into future-proofing, get one that has component video, DVI, and 1394 “firewire” connectors.
A brief note on 720p and 1080i: Don’t let them bog you down. While HDTV set manufacturers wish the content community would settle on one format, they decided a few years ago that unity wasn’t going to happen. It’s unlikely that you’d buy a set that doesn’t support what comes down the pipe, or over the air.
As for aesthetics, it sort of depends on you, your house, and your wallet. Size does matter, when it comes to HDTV.
In general, plasma displays are thin and sleek. As space goes, plasma hangs on the wall. It’s also the most expensive, relatively: The largest unit made today, at 60 diagonal inches, runs around $35,000.
Front projection units are a good use of space, but are decidedly more difficult to install — and forget about using them during the day, unless you can completely darken the viewing room.
Tube-style TVs – like what you probably have at home today – are huge, but they’re among the least expensive, relatively. When you hear people talking about how quickly the price of HDTV technology is dropping, you’re hearing about tube-styled sets.
Also, when it comes to aesthetics, remember to ask the person at the store about the recommended distance between the set and your chairs or couch, before you buy. It matters with HDTV.
And if all of this still seems too confusing to attempt for this holiday season, there’s always the rock.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.