There's been no shortage of criticism throughout the cable
industry's analog past for its less-than-user-friendly connection to consumer-electronics
gear such as televisions and VCRs.
But in cable's digital future, operators are intent on
making those interface headaches a distant memory.
The key is a digital-interconnect standard known as
"IEEE 1394," better-known by many as "fire wire."
Because of fire wire's enormous bandwidth, multiple
digital-data streams can be simultaneously transported around the house. This would give
viewers full, unfettered access to content from a variety of sources, including digital
camcorders, DVD (digital versatile disc) players, VCRs, TVs and cable set-top boxes.
"Digital technology gives us a chance to look at a
different demarcation point," said Mike Hayashi, vice president of advanced
engineering at Time Warner Cable.
He was referring to cable set-tops' historical role as a
bandwidth bottleneck because of their single-channel output, which hampers television
features such as picture-in-picture.
Consumer-electronics manufacturers are currently designing
equipment with fire-wire "plugs" in them. Some camcorders already have the plugs
attached. Industry analysts predicted that as many as 25 million devices using fire wire
will be sold by the end of 1999.
It's this momentum toward interconnectable digital gear
that the cable industry intends to ride, Hayashi said.
Last month, key architects of the cable industry's
OpenCable initiative met for three days with representatives of the consumer-electronics
makers to discuss the digital platform.
"We think that we have the stakes in the ground for
that now as a result of [that] meeting," said Michael Adams, senior network engineer
at Time Warner Cable. "We're trying to establish a 'base profile' that's easy enough
for the consumer-electronics guys to do, so that 90 percent of them sign up to support the
Although fire wire holds promise as a method to
interconnect an entire home, the immediate focus is on passing high-definition television
signals of all formats over the cable system, said Lori Schwartz, director of advanced
platforms and services at Cable Television Laboratories Inc. Fire wire is appealing
because it can pass through any of the 18 existing HDTV formats, she added.
The fire wire-equipped gear that debuts later this year
will be able to transport digital information at 200 megabits per second. Also in the
works are plans to increase the speed of this gear beyond the 1-gigabit-per-second
threshold. Considering that a full HDTV channel requires a data rate of about 20 mbps, the
capacity of fire wire becomes quite attractive, executives said.
CableLabs members are circulating a draft specification
that includes proposals for fire wire; vendors should receive the draft by the end of
June, Schwartz said. After that, efforts will be focused on helping consumer-electronics
vendors to integrate the spec into their products as soon as possible.
Although fire wire is a standard, there are a number of
unresolved issues that the cable industry hopes to influence, said Ralph Brown, a senior
software engineer at Time Warner. For example, determining which device's user interface
is used and how graphics are rendered on a TV are just two items that are critical to
cable operators as they prepare to offer a host of interactive services via digital
By utilizing the high bandwidth of fire wire, cable
operators intend to ensure that it's their user interface that gets used when a viewer
tunes in to watch TV, to play an interactive game or to do anything else in what has
become known as cable TV's "space."
But this doesn't mean that the TV will reduced to a
"dumb" monitor -- something that the consumer-electronics manufacturers fear and
will vigorously fight, said Hayashi, a former executive at Pioneer Electronics.
"What we're asking for is not much more than what's
needed for a TV to receive digital signals," he added.
But what about cost? Will this new feature raise the price
of TVs and set-tops? Not necessarily, according to cable engineers. Brown said the
fire-wire capability can eventually be integrated into another chip inside the set-top,
driving the cost of the device to under $5.
Howard Mirowitz, vice president and deputy general manager
for Mitsubishi Electronics America's North American Multimedia Business Center, concurred
that the cost for that circuitry can be driven that low, probably within the next two
Schwartz and CableLabs acknowledged that in the short term,
the cost will be higher than that. But, she noted, operators could choose whether to have
the feature built into their set-tops. For example, some MSOs are looking at adding the
fire-wire solution in only a portion of the digital set-tops that they deploy, while
others are viewing it as a core component in all of them.
"Each [MSO] is trying to figure out the economics of
this," she said.
One major stumbling block to locking down the fire-wire
standard: program copy protection. There are currently two factions with two different
approaches about how to ensure that consumers can't make pristine digital copies of movies
and other programs without paying an additional fee -- which the major Hollywood studios
are insisting upon.
But Schwartz said the two sides have already worked out
several problems, and they could soon work together to solve the rest. "I'm fairly
optimistic," she added.
"This is probably getting more attention than anything
else [at CableLabs] right now," Schwartz said.