Charter Eyes New Advanced Box


Digeo Inc., Motorola Inc. and Charter Communications Inc. today plan to announce a new advanced "companion" digital set-top designed to hook into current boxes, which the MSO will deploy by year-end.

The BMC (Broadband Media Center) 8000 is designed to go where no box has gone before, adding advanced functionality to already-deployed Motorola-made DCT 2000s and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s Explorer 2000 series.

"We're putting in what's necessary to give us a platform for interactive services for many, many years," said Charter executive vice president and chief technology officer Stephen Silva.

Silva and vendor executives didn't offer many details on the box's exact specifications last week. It will feature a hard drive for personal video recording, a central processing unit, a Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 1.1 cable modem, wireless home networking ports and Digeo interactive services (including music and photos), they said.

The box will be the same size as current set-tops and will likely include an operating system — potentially from Microsoft Corp. — as well as streaming media players.

The BMC-8000 would use the existing tuner and conditional access system from the 2000 boxes deployed in the field, said Matt Aden, senior vice president of the Motorola Broadband Communications Sector digital media group.

Charter has lab-tested the BMC-8000 to make sure it also works with the tuners and conditional access devices in S-A boxes, Silva said. (About 65 percent of Charter's 1.7 million digital set-tops are from Motorola, the balance come from S-A.)

The boxes also are being field-tested in Digeo's backyard — Kirkland, Wash.

Digeo, Motorola and Charter also plan by next year to develop a BMC-9000, which would include tuners and conditional-access equipment that would supercede the 2000/BMC-8000 combination.

The boxes vault ahead of Motorola's DCT-5000 in terms of capacity and functionality. Even though Charter is testing the DCT-5000 in St. Louis, Silva acknowledged that by year-end, it may well have more BMC-8000s in the field than DCT-5000s.

"The DCT-5000 doesn't have the same level of PVR functionality, and there are some other things that media servers do versus conventional set-tops," Silva said. "This service leapfrogs everything that's out there today."

And it adds another box to Motorola's set-top family. "This is a parallel program to the 5000," Aden said.

The companies declined to discuss pricing, but any box with a hard drive, DOCSIS modem and other functionality is likely to cost $300 or more.

Silva said revenue would be tied directly to the deployment of the BMC-8000, much like a cable modem or traditional set-top box. "This is no loss leader," he said.

Charter will work to determine which services it will offer and how it will price them, Silva said. The BMC's prices will inevitably fall over time, he added.

At a minimum, consumers will have access to a TiVo Inc.-like hard drive, a cable modem, home-network functionality and additional Digeo content offerings.

Those services could be bundled together and offered à la carte or in various packages, Silva said, but the box's final costs will be aligned with revenue.

"We have to wisely spend capital and get expected return on capital," he said. "It's a success-based model."

The pressure of competition from direct broadcast satellite has spurred Charter to action, said Silva. That's why he didn't want to wait for an all-in-one BMC 9000.

"I can start selling and making money today with the 8000," he said. "We're going to aggressively sell these services."

It was important for Charter to deploy the 8000 by the peak fourth-quarter DBS selling season, when satellite providers will be touting their "superior" platform, Silva added.

"We can change the tide and set the agenda," he said.