Comcast Wants Box Options

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Comcast has made a declaration of set-top independence.

The operator has embarked on a software strategy designed to let it more easily mix and match set-top box hardware suppliers, as well as give it the ability to roll out interactive TV applications faster.

Comcast plans to use CableLabs' open-source Tru2way middleware reference implementation (RI) as the standard operating system "stack," which conceptually would power all its set-tops at some point. The MSO has selected NDS to be the prime integrator on a project to develop and test new Tru2way applications and devices.
"We are committed to the Cable Labs reference implementation and its deployment on Tru2way devices," said Mark Hess, Comcast senior vice president of advanced business and technology development, in a statement.

The work between Comcast and NDS to "enhance" the CableLabs RI "will help advance the industry's adoption of Tru2way while also enabling us to bring our customers interactive services," Hess added.

As part of Comcast's new initiative, Pace already is developing a set-top based on the CableLabs Tru2way software that runs Intel's CE 3100 Media Processor system-on-a-chip, as previously reported by Multichannel News. But a source close to Comcast cautioned that the MSO has not yet settled on deployment plans for the Pace box and that other vendors are expected to deliver RI-based solutions as well.

At this point Comcast isn't discussing details about when it expects to deploy the CableLabs-derived Tru2way software on different hardware platforms.

"The RI is a CableLabs-managed initiative, and all hardware OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], as well as silicon and software vendors, are encouraged to participate," said Jenni Moyer, Comcast senior director of corporate communications.

NDS's work on the CableLabs Tru2way reference implementation code started in early June. The company is tasked with optimizing the RI stack and enabling uniform operation across Tru2way set-top boxes. The goal is to let Comcast run the same applications and services across multiple set-top models, providing a consistent user experience.

"We're taking the CableLabs reference implementation and we're hardening it up to make sure the performance is what it needs to be," said Jesper Knutsson, vice president and general manager of sales for NDS Americas. "We'll work with various hardware vendors to solidify their implementation with that."

Current implementations of Tru2way-which is the consumer brand name for CableLabs' OpenCable Application Platform-typically have quirks that are specific to a given hardware platform. For example, Cox Communications is deploying its new Tru2way-based Trio guide on Cisco Systems' Axiom OCAP middleware. In Motorola systems, Cox will roll out Cisco Explorer boxes with Motorola-based CableCards.
That's because "it was easier to do the integration [with the Trio guide] with one OCAP stack instead of two," Cox vice president of video strategy and product management Steve Necessary said in an interview last month.

Originally, cable's aim with OCAP/Tru2way was to achieve regulatory compliance with U.S. government mandates to let third-party devices, like TVs, run operators' interactive services without the need for a separate set-top box.

To that end Comcast now supports Tru2way in almost 90% of its cable headends, and has supported the availability of Panasonic's tru2way-enabled HDTVs at retail outlets in Chicago, Denver and Atlanta, Comcast said in comments filed last week with the Federal Communications Commission.

"Despite these efforts, thus far there has been little consumer interest in these Tru2way devices," the operator said in the comments, which were in response to the FCC's proposed changes intended to improve the way MSOs offer CableCards to consumers.

Separately, device-middleware firm Alticast is working with Cisco Systems to bring the Alticast-developed Tru2way stack to that vendor's set-tops. Last week Alticast CEO David Housman said Cisco set-tops with his company's OCAP middleware will be available in November 2010, although he noted that Cisco will continue to offer its own Axiom OCAP software.

Cisco confirmed it is working with Alticast but said the timing for commercial availability of the solution is not yet set.

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Tru2way Timeline

A brief history of CableLabs' Tru2way, a.k.a. the OpenCable Application Platform:

March 2001: First OCAP specifications released for industry review
October 2004: Samsung first to sign CableLabs licenses for two-way TVs
January 2008: CableLabs announces "Tru2way" as consumer-facing name for OCAP
June 2008: Six MSOs sign deal with CE makers to support Tru2way across footprints
June 2009: CableLabs releases open-source OCAP reference implementation

Source: Multichannel News research

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