With its self-imposed second-quarter deadline having come
and gone, MediaOne Group and its vendors quietly continue pushing toward deployment of the
first "open" U.S. cable system.
Systems have been moved from the laboratory to field
deployment in an unidentified market. And as engineers work to iron out remaining
nuts-and-bolts technical issues, the MSO is focusing less on its previous, admittedly
ambitious schedule and more on making sure the groundbreaking network performs according
"We're determined we're not going to launch unless
we're satisfied the system is really open and it's got every bit of quality our customers
expect," said Bud Wonsiewicz, MediaOne's chief technology officer. "All the
companies feel their reputation is riding on this launch, so we're determined to do it in
a really first-class way."
There was fanfare back in February when MediaOne announced
its plans to become the first cable operator to break from the General Instrument
Corp./Scientific Atlanta Inc. platform that dominates the U.S. market. MediaOne picked
Philips Electronics, Canal Plus Technologies and Divicom Inc. to deploy a cable system
based on the Digital Video Broadcasting platform used widely in Europe and by
Canal Plus is supplying the software platform,
incorporating its MediaGuard conditional access system and MediaHighway interactive
applications software; DiviCom is installing OpenCable-qualified headends; and Philips is
supplying its OpenCable-oriented digital set-top boxes, which have a DAVIC-based return
MediaOne said it was following the U.S. cable industry's
OpenCable standardization effort, which is aimed at creating huge cost efficiencies and a
new retail presence by promoting systems that would support digital set-top boxes and
applications from a broad range of manufacturers and software developers.
"They have fairly rapid product development cycles,
rapidly dropping price points," Wonsiewicz said of the widely used international
platforms. "And I believe the competitiveness of cable vis-à-vis satellite rests on
us getting on the right kind of technology path."
Besides recruiting a vendor coalition that has participated
in open-systems representing millions of set-top deployments in Europe and elsewhere,
MediaOne reached an agreement with GI to produce an "evolved" version of its
DCT-2000 set-top compatible with the Philips/Canal Plus/Divicom platform, for use in a
second open-systems market.
MediaOne on June 30 announced the launches of three digital
systems, in Cleveland, Cobb County, Ga., and Richmond, Va., using the DCT-2000.
Conspicuously absent was any word of the DVB-oriented launch, which the MSO had said
repeatedly would come by the end of the second quarter.
"We set out an extremely ambitious schedule; we're
tracking it pretty closely right now," Wonsiewicz said in a recent interview.
"In integrating parts from three vendors as you put things together, you begin
to find problems within the interfaces."
The reality is that it has taken longer than anticipated to
ensure not only that the system is ready for commercial-quality service, but that it also
meets the criteria for being "open" to all vendors' equipment following the
"The difficulty for the system integrator is to make
sure we are really providing an open system, so that if tomorrow they want to move forward
with a different set-top vendor they can do it," said Jean-Marc Racine, CEO of Canal
Plus U.S. Technologies, which is nominally the overall system integrator. "Let's not
underestimate that, it's a huge achievement."
While MediaOne and its vendors are reluctant to talk in
detail about the "blocking and tackling" still to be done before deployment,
they agree that the open-system technology -- and their relationships in integrating it
with one another's pieces -- has been sound.
"We didn't have any big surprises," said Emmanuel
Dieppedald, program manager with Philips' Cable USA division. "We went to this market
with big knowledge about the rest of the world. We didn't discover a lot of new things in
The remaining work focuses on details rather than
fundamental technology issues.
John Connelly, DiviCom's vice president of marketing, said
development work on all subsystems has been completed and equipment has been deployed on
site, with the partners now working through "very manageable" integration
"The total focus is on getting the first commercial
launch up and running, basically getting all the bugs are out of the different
systems," Wonsiewicz said. "It's not just hardware and software, it's interfaces
with billing systems we've been testing, getting people trained in the new hardware
installation, all the myriad things that would accompany any digital deployment."
Complicating the project was the initial coordination
necessary between relatively un-acquainted partners spread out in a trans-Atlantic
endeavor. Corporate cultural differences between American, Dutch and French teams had to
be ironed out so each could understand the other's project management disciplines, for
example, and agree how to align their various responsibilities.
"There have been cases where we've had a team of 10
engineers in Paris and 10 engineers in Milpitas, Calif., simultaneously debugging stuff,
with new software updates flashing across the Internet and being tested on real systems
very quickly," Wonsiewicz said.
Those kinds of technical and logistical resources have been
key in advancing the project, he added.
"If you're looking at a digital signal processing
problem there's not just one or two engineers trying to debug it," he said.
"It's a team of people from three or four different companies, all of whom are
extremely skilled and who speak the same language, which is technical English."