Inside Cablevision's Digital Box

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Though other cable operators have recently put their advanced digital platforms on a diet, Cablevision Systems Corp. has opted for a heavyweight for its first digital interactive-TV rollout — with a few tweaks to the original plan.

The feature-laden Sony Corp. box is the fruit of a $1 billion deal struck between the Japanese electronics maker and Cablevision in October of 1999. Though its debut was delayed, it is delivering on the original plan, for the most part, said Cablevision executive vice president of technology and engineering Wilt Hildenbrand.

"Admittedly, it is a few months later than we thought, but nonetheless, you'll see it," he said. "It's here and it's actually pretty damned good."

It's also thick: Initially, the Sony box will not have a hard drive, but it does house a Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification 1.1-compatible modem from Conexant Systems Inc., as well as a three-dimensional graphics board.

The Sony boxes can process about 300 million instructions per second (MIPS) and sport 32 megabytes of random-access memory and 32 MB of video Flash memory. They also include Universal Serial Bus ports and an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers IEEE-1394 Firewire connection that can to link up with audio-visual equipment.

Services include electronic mail, video-on-demand, a home-grown electronic programming guide and interactive programming.

Originally, Cablevision had planned to offer the full-feature primary box and a stripped-down model to be used on secondary sets.

Hildenbrand said Cablevision opted to go with just the primary box at present. It plans to offer the secondary box in the first half of 2002.

"This approach sort of modifies everything we are doing mainly because this year, it gets to earlier adopters," Hildenbrand said. "But systemically, we are built out to where we can make the service more universally available as opposed to doing it area by area."

Also absent for now are Internet-protocol telephony, an electronic-commerce smart card slot and personal video recording capability.

Cablevision is working on a future box that will include a hard drive with personal video recording capabilities "but it's not there right now," Hildenbrand said.

Also on the drawing board is an IP link for telephony service, now set to debut in January. Hildenbrand said Cablevision is now testing a prototype translation unit that harnesses the cable modem, channeling telephony signals through the USB port to a standard RJ-11 phone connection.

The video-on-demand system, meanwhile, is the first open-standards-based platform in the nation. Cablevision is using several vendors, including Harmonic Inc. for modulation equipment; a NDS Group plc conditional access system; Sony's box and middleware; and SeaChange for the video-on-demand delivery.

"People have been working together now for literally two years to get this system ready to launch, said SeaChange vice president of ITV sales Susan George. "They will be the first site, I believe, that will be able to provide session-based encryption. They've done some very, very leading-edge things."

SeaChange's VOD service includes six hubs for the Long Island system, with the central control located in a Hicksville, N.Y., hub. Plans are to expand that to Cablevision's New Jersey, Westchester, Brooklyn and Bronx systems, followed by its Connecticut territory.

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