CEOs See Big Year for OpenCable

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Las Vegas— After years in the laboratory, OpenCable might finally be open for business.

Top cable-industry executives, together with three TV-set manufacturers, on Jan. 5 said they would roll out OpenCable Application Platform middleware in cable systems serving millions of subscribers in 2006.

“Our goal is to harness the innovation of the consumer-electronics industry,” Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of top U.S. cable provider Comcast Corp., said at the International Consumer Electronics Show here.

The software specification allows applications written for cable systems, such as program guides or interactive games, to work on a variety of software found on servers used in the equipment headends that drive cable-TV operations.

WHAT IT DELIVERS

The middleware, developed by industry research consortium Cable Television Laboratories Inc., will provide a number of consumer benefits:

  • For the first time, a consumer would be able to use a single TV-set remote control to operate their TV set, set-top box, DVD player and home theater system.
  • Consumers would not need a set-top to access on-demand programs and other interactive services if the OCAP middleware were present on a digital cable-ready TV.
  • And application providers could write one piece of software, for, say an ITV application that would run a diverse set of cable systems.

Time Warner Cable said it will deploy OpenCable-enabled servers in headends serving 2.5 million subscribers, including in New York City; Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wisc.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Waco, Texas.

Comcast pledged deployments in Philadelphia, Boston, Denver and Northern New Jersey. Advance/Newhouse will deploy the middleware platform on its Bright House Networks system in Indianapolis.

Cox Communications Inc., Charter Communications Inc. and Cablevision Systems Corp. also pledged rollouts, but did not specify markets.

To roll out OpenCable, cable companies have to deploy an off-the-shelf application server in a headend and choose OCAP middleware to run across the system.

But there has to be an OpenCable device in the consumer’s home to run the OCAP software — either a digital-cable ready TV or an OCAP-capable digital set-top — to enable features like single-remote control usage or interactive services.

Comcast signed deals last week with Samsung Electronics America Inc. and Panasonic Consumer Electronics for a combined 450,000 set-tops that will be OCAP-capable. Comcast’s existing deal with Pace Micro Technology plc also contemplates OpenCable set-tops.

Time Warner Cable has a 50,000 OpenCable set-top order from Samsung in place and has deployed 20 OCAP Samsung TV sets in a market trial in Gastonia, N.C.

Mike Hayashi, Time Warner’s senior vice president of advanced technology, said that starting this summer, every set-top it ships will be built to include OpenCable software.

LG Electronics, Samsung and Panasonic all have signed the Cable Host Interface Application (CHILA) agreement with CableLabs, along with Thomson and Digeo, pledging to build two-way OpenCable TVs.

But executives from LG, Samsung and Panasonic last week could not say that significant numbers of OpenCable TV sets would be in the market in 2006, even as cable rolls out OCAP middleware in headends.

Woo Paik, president and chief technical adviser at LG, said his company probably wouldn’t have the right kind of TV sets built until the end of 2006. “The system is very complicated and it has to be reliable,” he said. “We need to do extensive field trials.”

It’s one thing for a cable company to send a truck to fix a $300 set-top, he said. It’s another thing for a consumer to deal with a malfunctioning 55-inch OCAP TV costing thousands of dollars.

Sang-Heung Shin, senior vice president and head of visual display sales for Samsung, was more optimistic, having deployed OpenCable TVs with Time Warner Cable. “We are almost ready,” he said.

HELPS OUT WITH FEDS

The OpenCable deployment makes good on cable’s commitment to the federal government to allow consumers greater choice with set-top equipment. TV-set manufacturers might be slow to roll out the new form of set, but there could be 100,000 or more OpenCable set-tops deployed at this time next year.

Higher-end set-tops already deployed by S-A and Motorola can run OCAP middleware.

Cox Communications Inc. president Patrick Esser said Cox planned to “quickly” deploy interactive news, weather and other services — such as e-mail, caller ID on the TV and gaming applications — on OpenCable platforms.

Time Warner has been testing a number of interactive applications that should be easier to deploy with OpenCable software in place, such as games and eBay auctions on the TV.

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