Monthly Archives: May 2010
Hello Again, Selectable Output Control, You Odd Duck
by Leslie Ellis // May 31 2010
What’s oldie, newbie and weirdie, all in one? Answer: “Selectable Output Controls.”
It’s old, because it dates back eight years, as a side-argument to the “plug and play” negotiations between cable and consumer electronics.
It’s new, because it resurfaced on May 7, when the FCC agreed to grant a waiver (as it had said it would) for a new business model that interrupted one of the early tenets of that “plug and play” agreement. Translation: The waiver gives movie studios the right to try a new distribution window — sometime after theatrical release, but before DVD. If you’re into VOD, think of it as a “home theater premiere” slot.
The wording of it is what’s weird. For starters, as an acronym, “SOC” more predominately means “system on a chip,” a very big deal in the electronics universe. Plus, it’s just hard to get your head around a noun (“output”) positioned as an adjective.
The easiest way to explain it is from the perspective of an actual movie title. Say that’s you. You’re the movie. You’re a great movie! Your creators spent a small fortune on you, partially with the hopes that you’d make a killing in theaters, then along the predicable and long-established distribution window of airlines, on-demand, DVDs, and Red Box.
Thing is, you want a way into home theaters. Most of them are tricked out well enough to showcase your beauty. There has to be a chunk of time when you could make a killing as a premiere, less the gas to the theater and the babysitter and the $10 box of Snowcaps.
Problem is, you don’t want to be stolen on the very night you meet the world.
Mostly, titles like you get stolen because set-top boxes still straddle the analog and digital worlds. At issue are those unprotected analog spigots (like component connectors) available on those boxes connected to in-home HD screens. They still produce a pretty good picture for the pirate sitting there, catching (and copying) you over an unprotected output.
Your answer: Be gone with those leaky, porous analog spigots! Put a tag in your metadata, which can be captured by the navigation system / guide. Your “SOC” tag tells the box to turn off the vulnerable analog spigots, when somebody opts to play you in your fancy new distribution window.
Great idea, if you’re into the idea of a “home theater premier” window. Easier said than done, though. More on that another time…
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Cable Technology – But Didn’t Want To Ask
by Leslie Ellis // May 24 2010
It happens to all of us. You’re in a meeting. Engineers are present. You veer off mentally – just for a second! – and by the time you’re back, the conversation thickened into uncomfortably unfamiliar technical territory.
Acronyms, nested acronyms, spoken acronyms. Wideband, IP, QAMs. Cable tech jargon has a beginning (the late 1940s), but it has no end. For that reason, we’ve put together this roundup of tech “translatables” – to answer the unasked questions, and, at the least, to make you a capable tech-conversationalist.
1. “All Digital” vs. “All-IP”
It was at the 2003 Cable Show at Microsoft’s Bill Gates asked Comcast CEO Brian Roberts whether and when the cable industry would go from “all digital” to “all IP.”
Since then, all-digital happened – most cable providers now offer the core linear lineup in standard and high definition digital.
Just as there were different ways to do analog – your radio tunes AM and FM frequencies, for instance – there are different ways to do digital. IP is one of them. “MPEG transport” is the other. (And it came first.)
In the shortest of shorthand, IP transport moves data through the cable modem side of the house. MPEG transport moves data through a set-top box.
2. What’s All This About IP Video?
Perhaps the strongest undercurrent in cable technology today is the shift toward “IP video” and “IPTV.” On the surface, it’s about sending the full video lineup (linear and on-demand) through the cable modem, over a home network, to connected devices including and beyond the TV.
But IP touches pretty much everything else in video delivery, from the way it’s sent from originators, to the way it’s navigated by consumers, and everything in-between: Ingest, transport, headend gear, in-home gear, home networks, software. The work of it is opening up the interfaces between components, to extend development to web-based interactions.
But what is IP, exactly? Technically, Internet Protocol is a nickname for a longer protocol, known as TCP/IP, or transmission control protocol / Internet protocol. It’s the underlying language of the Internet, used by data communications equipment to speak to one another – so that all of the pieces of the chain know where and how to send information.
The good news is that we don’t have to call it “TCP/IP-TV.”
3. What on earth is a QAM?
What’s part thing, part method, part unit of measurement? QAM. People tend to say it as a word – kwahm. It stands for “Quadrature Amplitude Modulation.” Unless you’re wired to listen for it in three ways, QAM is the king of cable jargon.
In one sense, QAMs are physical things, shaped in the “pizza box” style of rack-mounted gear. A solid vendor community exists to build video QAMs, and data/voice QAMs. Gear-related QAM discussions these days usually center on density – how many can fit in one pizza box. Comcast’s new “CMAP” initiative aims for 160.
QAM is part method in that its job is to imprint digital information onto a communications carrier, for conveyance to the items at the end of the plant. Set-tops, cable modems, voice terminals.
And, QAM is partly a unit of measurement, in that its current carrying capacity is 38.8 Megabits per second. (People often round this up to 40 Mbps). Example sentence: “We’re using four QAMS for IPTV.” That means dedicating four, 6 MHz channels, each with a carrying capacity of 38.8 Mbps, to make one big, 155 Mbps IPTV passageway.
There’s just no escaping QAMs. Best to learn to listen for it three ways.
4. Satellite v. “CDN”
As IP infiltrates the world of networks, so does traditional satellite receiving technology get augmented with fiber backbones, loosely known as Content Delivery Networks, or CDNs.
Remember the telecom bust, a few years back? In its wake was a glut of dark fiber, strung but not lit up with traffic.
Sending data over those local, regional and national fiber rings, all interconnected, is less expensive than sending it up into space, then back down again. That’s why CDNs are such a big deal.
5. What’s Smart About a Smart Phone?
Remember when carrier-provided “walled gardens” were the only way to get new applications for your cellular phone?
In the language of “smart phones,” walled gardens are what’s dumb. Smart phones come with an Internet (IP, there it is again) connection, for zipping off to the Internet, or an open-source apps store, for whatever you desire for your mobile gadget.
6. What’s Up with DOCSIS 3.0?
You’ve heard about DOCSIS 3.0 for a while now. You know that channel bonding is the big feature, and that cable operators are up to their eyebrows in deployments. Why is it still such a big deal?
Because it’s those bonded, 6 MHz channels – those bonded “QAMs” – that become the transit lane for IP video. Back of the envelope calculations from cable’s engine rooms indicate a need for between six and eight 6 MHz channels, bonded, to carry an exact replica (in IP) of what’s already available in linear and on-demand TV.
7. What’s TV Everywhere/Authentication?
Part of the business of getting subscription TV on screens other than the TV is making sure Customer Jane really is Customer Jane – and not her 50 friends, outfitted with her login credentials.
That’s why cable operators and program networks are working, individually and together (in an underground tech effort known as the Open Authentication Technology Committee), to make sure consumers can get to the content they’re paying for. Easily, and without a lot of hassle – on the TV, PC, or handheld.
Ultimately, the intent is for subscribers to be able to go to an aggregated video site (e.g. Fancast/Xfinity) or to individual program network sites, log in – once — and view the content associated with their subscription.
And even if Customer Jane closes her browser, goes to lunch, comes back, and opens into another content owner’s site – she’s still logged in. Much less of a hassle for her. That’s the plan.
8. Can cloud computing help cable?
In simplest form, “cloud computing” means processing and storing stuff in the network, as opposed to at the end points.
Best current cable example: Navigating content across multiple screens. One screen (the TV) may be outfitted for MPEG-2 decompression, while a newer screen (handheld) may use MPEG-4.
Likewise for screen resolution. Each screen needs what it needs. But should that processing be done within each end device, or higher up in the network?
And if that’s the case, how is the cable industry anything but a cloud?
9. What’s the difference between EBIF and SelecTV?
SelecTV is to EBIF as tru2way is to OCAP: The outward-facing marquee for a group of technical specifications.
Just as “tru2way” became the retail front for the still-active technical specs known as “OCAP” (OpenCable Applications Platform), “SelecTV” will become the icon that visually indicates an interactive event to TV viewers.
Refresher: EBIF stands for Enhanced Binary Interchange Format. It’s a way to get a clickable thing onto a very wide footprint of cable-connected screens.
What’s big about EBIF is its reach – as many as 30 million homes this year. Its reach is wide because it’s small enough to run on set-tops deployed a decade or more ago.
Watch for EBIF to show up in force later this year, for advertising (click for more info), participatory TV (click a contestant gone), and things like Comcast’s “ready remind record” feature, for keeping people linked with the programming they like, even if they forgot to set the DVR.
10. What’s a selectable output control?
“Selectable output control” is regulatory-speak for giving movie studios permission to select the set-top output that keeps their titles the safest (from piracy).
This one dates back eight years. Remember the Memorandum of Understanding, submitted by cable and the consumer electronics industry, which ultimately begat the one-way Plug and Play agreement?
Short version: Cable sided with CE, saying that it wouldn’t disable the analog outputs on its set-tops. Reason: CE didn’t want their sets to go blank, for any reason. Ever.
For cable, it was a puckered give. If you’re technically capable of premiering new movies, sometime after theatrical, but before DVD. (Think how hot this is for VOD!) Agreeing to not do it involves a fair amount of grimace.
But studios were (and are) concerned about what’s known as “the analog hole” – the ability for a premium title to flow over an unprotected (component video or other analog) connector, to a screen or recording device.
The fear: Titles get compromised at infancy. With a predictable effect on revenues.
Selectable output control, often abbreviated “SOC,” re-entered the on-demand conversational mainstream on May 7, when the FCC approved its use. Despite its wonky name, this is a big one.
This story originally appeared as a cover story in Multichannel News.
Why Eyewear-Free 3DTVs Are Hard to Build
by Leslie Ellis // May 17 2010
One of the questions that always (always) comes up, in discussions about 3D television, is this: “Will there ever be a 3D TV that doesn’t require the glasses?”
Regardless of your stance on the matter of whether and why people are put off by 3D TV eyewear, it’s a valid question. Dedicated eyewear for television watching seems destined to parallel the life of the TV remote: Something that gets sat on, chewed on, spilled on, and lost in the cushions. Sometimes simultaneously.
Many of us have seen 3D televisions that don’t require special eyewear. Visually, most of us have the same reaction: Eh, maybe not; a little off; needs more work.
From a usability perspective, it’s worse: Forget about lying down, or tilting your head, or even moving, in some cases. Today’s auto-stereoscopic 3D TVs require the viewer to stay in a fairly fixed position.
Ever wonder why? I did, and was glad to learn more about it during a standing-room-only technical session at last week’s Cable Show in Los Angeles.
Here’s why doing 3D without the glasses is so hard: It needs more (many more) than the two camera angles, one for each eye. And, each extra camera “view” divides the resolution.
That’s not to say that it can’t be done, but, it’s going to make for a really, really large video stream, relative to today’s high definition TV streams. Which are already pretty large, compared to standard definition TV.
Mark Schubin, a 3D expert and operator of SchubinCafe.com, described an NHK display of glasses-free 3D he saw at the 2009 NAB show: “It was spectacular. You could move your head in any direction; you could look around objects – but the quality was less resolution than You Tube.”
Plus, he said, the footage was shot using an 8K camera – meaning 16 times the pixels of an HD camera. So, to get to really good auto-stereoscopic television, “you may need 100 times the picture information” of HD. For mediocre quality, it’s still a video stream that’s five or more times larger than an HD stream.
That’s why glasses-free 3D may emerge first on smaller, personal devices, noted David Broberg, vice president of consumer video technology for CableLabs, who also spoke on the panel. With the use of a method called “parallax barrier,” the sweet spot for 3D viewing is technically and visually manageable — on a smaller screen.
So, the answer to the question of whether there will ever be glasses-free 3D TV is yes – and no. Surely, someday, there will be eyewear-free 3D. But probably not anytime soon, especially when it comes to big screen TVs.
Until then, the 3D glasses become another thing to keep away from the puppy, the beverage, and the couch cushions.
This column originally ran in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
A Cable Show IP Video Descrambler
by Leslie Ellis // May 10 2010
One of the stronger undercurrents at this week’s Cable Show will be those two awkward letters, “IP,” shadowing every move of the core business: Video.
From the places where video gushes in to cable headends, to the gadgets and screens hanging off the ends of the plant, make way. Internet Protocol, or IP, is somewhere very nearby.
Let’s start with the places where video gushes in to the headend. From geosynchronous orbit, into the IRD (integrated receiver/decoder) of the satellite dish, right? Yes, but in the new lingo, video content comes from an off-lane of a fiber backbone, called a Content Delivery Network. CDN. Know it.
Then there’s the stuff hanging off the ends of the plant. Televisions, telephones, and computers, right? Video, voice, data.
Yes, but it’s that data passageway, constructed in the late 1990s, that’s at the helm of IP. It was conceived as a way to blast data at high speeds into a cable modem connected to a computer. We call it broadband.
Broadband begat the Baby Huey that is – well — IP. And the Baby Huey that is IP is thirsty. Screen upon screen has Wi-Fi or Ethernet spigots, and wants a connection. (Wi-Fi and Ethernet are the wireless and wired ambassadors of IP, respectively.) iPads, smart phones, netbooks, laptops, e-readers — they live when connected to IP.
In the middle, everything else. Tons of it. The navigational system. The hooks into billing systems and core video controllers. “Conditional access,” which in the IP world cedes to digital rights management, or “DRM.” Where to make room for “transcoding,” of incoming video, into the many different resolutions and formats that are thirsting for it on the receive end.
Architecture. Also big. Going to video over IP means sending video through the CMTS (Cable Modem Termination System), instead of through the digital video side of the house. In familial terms, it’s the uncle giving the family jewels to the nephew. In technical terms, it’s a big deal.
Gateways, that’s something we’ll be hearing a lot about, with IP ascending. Video gateways, home networking gateways, data gateways. Is it a cable modem tricked out for video, or a digital set-top, tricked out for IP? (Magic 8-ball says: Ask again later.)
Why all this IP hullaballoo? Chief among the reasons to belly up to IP is its speed, in making new stuff and getting it out there. Open up the interfaces, slide a web-based magic carpet onto the front end, test it, get it out there – weeks. Not months.
There’s also the matter of money. Especially the huge piles of cash directed at developing and honing the stuff of IP. Tonnage of it, compared to traditional digital video.
When it comes to IP, it’s probably best to just go with the flow — which is yet another example of the linguistic difficulties of “IP.” (Just like “it seems like IP everywhere.” Say it out loud and you’ll see what we mean.)
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Goodbye, tru2way — Hello, AllVid
by Leslie Ellis // May 03 2010
By now it’s clear that the chapter involving CableCards and the retail part of tru2way is closing, if not closed.
We’ll stop short of “stick a fork in it, it’s done,” because as former NCTA attorney Dan Brenner once quipped, it’s just never a good idea to stick a fork into a piece of electronics.
Here’s how the FCC said it, in its April 21 Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on multichannel video issues: “We are not convinced that the tru2way solution will assure the development of a commercial retail market.”
And, from FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell: “To be blunt, the CableCard approach … has been disappointing.”
Let’s review the facts. CableCards grew out of an FCC mandate that banned (only) cable operators from deploying set-top boxes with integrated security.
So they did. Today, some 18 million boxes are deployed with CableCards, at a cost north of $1.2 billion.
No, the new “AllVid” proposal from the FCC is for an “adaptor,” or “set-back device.” The latter is so named not because it’s a setback, of course, but because it sits back. Small, unobtrusive, out of sight.
The FCC’s set-back adapter would handle signal reception, tuning, and upstream (home outward) functions. Oh, and conditional access. (Quick translation: On the condition that your account is in good standing, you get access.)
So much for that integrated security ban.
The adapter would hook to a different, “smart video” device, which would handle “navigation functions, including presentation of programming guides and search functionality.” That’s a biggie for the consumer electronics industry – they’ve wanted first-screen navigation for two decades.
If you’re hungry for tech-talk, the 38-page NOI is chewy. Short-list of terms to keep an eye on: DLNA, short for Digital Living Network Alliance. It’s the protocol that lets different gadgets connected to an IP network identify themselves on different screens, with an icon – “hi, I’m a TV,” “hi, I’m a PC,” and so on.
Also: DTCP-IP, or Digital Transmission Content Protection / Internet Protocol, a not-new a way to enforce digital rights, using encryption, which most in the video food chain seems to agree is ok.
Mostly, the NOI asks questions. Lots of questions. (I lost count at 22.) Some of them venture alarmingly deep into the techno-weeds. Citing how devices connected to cable’s switched digital video systems need a way to tell the switch when a viewer stops viewing (true enough), the FCC asks: “What protocols will be necessary for the AllVid adaptor to query whether the navigation device still requires access to the program stream?”
That answer, and 21 others, are due back to the FCC in mid-June. Heigh-ho.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.