Meet The New Boxes

Author:
Updated:
Original:

In the two years since its heralded launch, Motorola Broadband Communications Sector's DCT-5000 advanced digital set-top hasn't made its way into many homes.

There have been software-integration headaches, and some operators simply aren't convinced that there's a business case for the supercharged, cable modem-embedded box.

All is not lost, insist Motorola Broadband officials preparing to pitch new, improved versions of the "thick-client" behemoth, tailored to operator requirements, at next week's National Show in Chicago. But the question remains: is an even "thicker" and costlier advanced box any more likely to find favor among cable operators that think the current box is overly fancy and too expensive?

Among the top MSOs, Charter, which is a fan of the integrated PVR, has been briefed on Motorola's 5000 plans.

"We're encouraged that Motorola is taking this step and offering these different alternatives, even though not all of those alternatives apply to Charter," said Jim Henderson, Charter's vice president of corporate development.

While Charter has yet to place any orders for Motorola's 5000-class boxes, Henderson said the MSO is most interested in the DCT52X0 model as well as another, unnamed box Motorola is developing with dual PVR tuners, which would allow a customer to record one channel while watching another.

For the first time, Motorola said it will publicly discuss three new set-tops: the DCT-5100, DCT-5200 and DCT-52X0. All are designed to fit particular cable-operator requirements, explained Mark DePietro, vice president of marketing and systems engineering and marketing for Motorola Broadband's DigiCable unit.

Each new 5000-class box will handle high-definition television decoding, and some models can accommodate personal video recording, video streaming and home networking.

Like their predecessor, the new versions also will contain an integrated Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification-based cable-modem.

Motorola also plans to bolster the popular "thin-client" DCT-2000 line. DePietro confirmed plans for a midrange box called the DCT-2500.

"We're evolving that platform, as well," DePietro said. "We've had various discussions to include things like PVRs, HD and DOCSIS.

"Over time, there will be extensions to the 2000 family with different numbers associated with them that will be driven by a feature."

That strategy is close to that of rival Scientific-Atlanta Inc., which has placed its variety of Explorers into three distinct categories based on the functions they support: the network computer (Explorer 2100 and 3100), home gateway (Explorer 4100 and 6000) and home media server (Explorer 8000).

NEW 5000 CLASS SPECS

For starters, the DCT-5100 will harbor 16 megabytes or 32 MB of flash memory, plus 32 or 64 MB of DRAM, expandable to 128 MB.

That box, set for launch in the fourth quarter of this year, also will come with a home-networking option, capabilities for Web-enhanced interactivity and a universal serial bus port to tether wireless-networking devices.

The DCT-5100's larger memory footprint and greater processing power will also give the box video-streaming capabilities, according to Bernadette Vernon, director of strategic marketing for Motorola Broadband's DigiCable division.

Meanwhile, the DCT-5200 and DCT-52X0 boxes will have PVRs solidly in mind when they become available in fourth-quarter 2001. Personal video recording — a computerized form of TV time-shifting — is an advance popularized by TiVo Inc. and currently found in cable-killing direct-broadcast satellite receivers.

The DCT-5200 will be "PVR-ready," capable of housing navigational software and an optional hard drive for digital-video storage. The DCT-52X0 will have PVR support built-in at the factory. (The "X" in the name will be changed to a number that represents the size of the disk embedded in a particular box.)

Motorola Broadband also expects those set-tops to be production-ready sometime in the fourth quarter of 2001.

PVRs : VITAL OR RISKY?

Under existing specifications, the DCT-5200 and DCT-52X0 will contain one PVR tuner, though more could be added at cable operators' request, Vernon said.

DePietro admitted that set-tops with on-board PVRs have inherent cost risks for cable operators.

"The market for PVRs hasn't really taken off in large volumes, so operators don't necessarily want to commit to huge volumes," he said.

DePietro surmised that the on-board PVR option for the DCT-5200 will give MSOs a "stepping stone" to reach that capability when and if that form of time-shifting becomes truly mainstream. DePietro said much of the work involving the DCT-5200 is linked to a project the company is working on with SonicBlue and Charter Communications Inc., which plans to test drive a PVR-enabled Motorola set-top.

Adding a PVR to the 5000 will certainly increase the cost of a box that some operators already have deemed too expensive. Motorola contends MSOs could recoup that cost over time, if they charge a separate monthly fee for a PVR service. Still, operators risk stranding capital if subscribers who use a box with a hard drive don't take the PVR service.

The company wouldn't disclose specific figures, but the DCT-5200 most resembles Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s Explorer 8000, which carries a price of more than $500 per unit.

Enabling the box to handle voice-over-Internet protocol could produce another potential revenue stream. But MSOs are still waiting for DOCSIS 1.1 and PacketCable technology to evolve. So, for now, PVRs are the more-established business line.

Among the other DCT-5000-class enhancements and developments: Motorola Broadband also plans to opt-in a bundled Web pad, which would allow viewers to access the Internet via the box's internal DOCSIS cable modem, and to support additional streaming and home-networking technologies.

MSOs WANT THICK AND THIN

DePietro said the latest 5000-class set-tops resulted from digital advisory council meetings Motorola Broadband holds with top MSOs each February or March.

"We take those different viewpoints and couple that with our viewpoint to get a consensus point on where we think we should be taking our product line, priority wise, over the next 12 to 18 months," he said.

"The conclusion that we're drawing from those meetings is that our strategy of having two main product lines" — the 2000- and 5000-class set-tops — "remains correct. There are some people who think that [applications and services] should run on a thin-client box, and others who think that's more important for a thick client. There's more than one school of thought out there right now."

Because opinions among MSOs vary, Motorola Broadband's set-tops will continue to evolve, he said.

While Motorola Broadband claims several improvements will be added to its new line of 5000-class boxes, the original DCT-5000, which was unveiled in 1999, lugs with it a well-documented history of troubles.

THE 5000's PROBLEMS

It's been widely reported that software-integration problems associated with the DCT-5000 have limited their field deployment to a fraction of the 300,000 units that have actually been shipped.

One industry analyst, speaking on background, said cable operators view the original DCT-5000 as "A, already obsolete; and B, a little too ambitious. [Motorola] tried to put too many ingredients in the pot."

Motorola's new line of boxes "is another mid-course correction," the analyst said. "What was state-of-the-art [in 1999] is not even close to what's state-of-the-art today."

While the original DCT-5000 was arguably designed and built before its time, Motorola Broadband hopes the guts of its new thick set-tops will better fit the needs of its MSO customers.

The most prominent software-integration problem was AT&T Broadband's match made in limbo of the DCT-5000 and the Microsoft TV platform. DePietro acknowledged that the majority of DCT-5000s have been shipped to AT&T Broadband, but declined to provide a specific figure.

AT&T Broadband spokesman Steve Lang would not confirm how many of the boxes have been shipped, but sources familiar with the situation estimate that the MSO has received roughly 250,000 DCT-5000s. Most are still languishing somewhere, collecting dust.

Lang said the MSO's recent trial using Liberate Technologies set-top box software in a Denver suburb marked the first time AT&T Broadband tested the DCT-5000 on active cable plant and in customer homes. He would not disclose how many boxes were employed for the trial.

AT&T Broadband sewed up its six-week Liberate trial back in January of this year.

In April, Charter Communications Inc. tested the DCT-5000 with the Liberate platform in St. Louis. Charter also plans to launch Liberate in one other system this year, a spokesman said.

CONVERTING OLD 5000s

Despite cable sources who claim the original DCT-5000 can't be rigged to behave like a DCT-2000 in the field, AT&T Broadband and Motorola Broadband officials insist that they can, with the proper software.

Several industry sources have speculated that recurring problems with the DCT-5000 would eventually plunge the advanced box into an earlier-than-expected dirt nap.

"There have been rumors out there that we would discontinue the 5000," DePietro said. "That's certainly not the case. We're evolving the 5000, just as we have with the 2000."

He said the DCT-2000 has already undergone about eight redesigns to improve functionality and reduce cost.

"We've taken about 50 percent out of [the DCT-2000's] price over the past few years," he added. "We're taking that strategy and applying it to the 5000."

PRICING THE BOXES

Though Motorola Broadband officials refuse to provide pricing figures for the original DCT-5000 or current DCT-2000 models, they do not dispute a base price of $330 per unit for the DCT-5000 and $230 per DCT-2000. Prices for both are fluid when options are added or taken away.

By comparison, Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s Explorer 2100 and 3100 are priced between $200 and $400 apiece. S-A's high-end box, the PVR-capable Explorer 8000, costs more than $500.

S-A's midrange set-tops, the Explorer 4100 and 6000, go for anywhere between $330 and $500.

The price of the Explorer 8000 could soon drop, thanks to Moore's Law and other cost-reduction plans already under way, said Kenneth Klaer, vice president and general manager of marketing and business development for S-A's subscriber networks division.

Related