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.