The industry's OpenCable initiative to foster interoperability of digital set-top boxes
from different manufacturers is approaching some significant milestones, with
interoperability testing about to begin and the completion of some important standards
within sight. As the project enters the homestretch of its race to see OpenCable consumer
products in the market by mid-2000, the project's new director, Lisa Lee, faces a number
of issues. These range from testing logistics to helping to achieve consensus on matters
such as the best way to employ copyright protection for digital programming. Lee -- whose
career has included executive positions in systems and networks areas of MCI WorldCom,
Sprint Corp. and Excel Communications Inc. -- recently succeeded Laurie Schwartz Priddy as
director of OpenCable after Priddy became president of AT&T Broadband & Internet
Services' National Digital Television Center. She recently spoke with Multichannel
News senior broadband editor Bill Menezes about the progress of OpenCable and some of
the work ahead.
MCN: You're coming over at a pretty significant time in the OpenCable process. What are
your thoughts coming in about what you need to do and the challenges you see in terms of
advancing the process?
LL: I personally view it as a very exciting time to be joining the OpenCable program.
It's in the middle of development, but there are still a lot of things that have to happen
for it to be successful.
I think in terms of the challenges and the areas of focus, it's really on continuing to
get all of the industries and companies to work together, each looking at their own
business models and their own challenges and trying to find win-win situations for
everyone along the way.
If you look at the number of companies that are involved and the number of industries
-- looking at coordinating cable efforts, working with the CEMA [Consumer Electronics
Manufacturers Association], working with the NAB [National Association of Broadcasters],
the NCTA [National Cable Television Association], the retailers, the MPAA [Motion Picture
Association of America], and each of those having lots of companies underneath them -- I
think the real challenge is a communications challenge in keeping open dialogue among the
MCN: There are more than 300 participants now. I assume it gets more difficult, and
better at the same time, as more companies come on board?
LL: That's actually true: It's more difficult in terms of trying to get people to come
to consensus, but you get lots of invigorating, innovative ideas as more people join the
MCN: Let's talk about where the process is right now, what's been completed and what
it's going to take to get the rest done.
LL: I couldn't review all of the specifications with you because there are lots and
lots of them, and it seems like every week, there may be new things that different vendors
want to enter into the process as a specification.
In terms of the major ones, the POD [point-of-deployment security module] interface was
completed. We're currently working on the copy-protection component of that, which we're
planning on putting through ballots in the June SCTE [Society of Cable Telecommunications
We're working through the SCTE standards process for our specifications. It's being
drafted by a subcommittee, and then actually being submitted to the SCTE DVS [Digital
Video Subcommittee]. We're also adopting other industry standards where we can and where
it makes sense.
The POD specification has been approved, but not adopted yet. It's waiting for the
copy-protection component, which is actually a separate specification. They approved the
POD-interface specification as long as we got the copy-protection specification -- the two
specifications are tied.
MCN: The NCTA and the CEMA sent a letter a couple of months ago to Federal
Communications Commission chairman William Kennard, assuring him that they were making
substantial progress on areas such as copy protection. Is there still work to be done with
the CEMA on these issues?
LL: Sure, we'll be working with the consumer-electronics side all the way up through
and including deployment -- any time you have something this big, and there are so many
different components coming together.
In fact, some of the specifications there now, I'm positive we'll modify as we go into
some of our actual testing. You've got the best ideas coming together with every
specification. You learn things as things actually become real products. So I'm positive
that we'll actually be modifying some of them when we go into the actual interop process.
And we are working very closely with the whole consumer-electronics industry on the
specifications. I think specifically, they were probably referring to the POD interface.
Our functional requirements are very close to getting their buy-off -- we have one last
component that we're working on right now, which are some performance parameters to make
sure that what the consumer gets in the end is successful. Hopefully, more than successful
-- hopefully, it will delight them in the end.
MCN: They were also talking about 1394, the 'fire-wire' device interface.
LL: 1394 was actually approved by the ITU [International Telecommunications Union]
standards committee in May, and it looks like it will be through its final process in
September, and like that's going to move forward.
MCN: So there aren't any issues between cable and the consumer-electronics industry as
far as how they're going to work together?
LL: I wouldn't go as far as to say that. I would say I believe that all the way up
through implementation, because it's a new standard, it will be revised.
MCN: Is the same true for copy protection?
LL: The cable industry has adopted '5-C' copy protection, and the reason why we adopted
it is because that's the copy protection the MPAA is behind. We've got a specification
right now that we plan to put on the ballot in the June time frame. There are still some
open issues on it, but we hope it will pass the June ballot.
MCN: What's the consumer-electronics industry's perspective on using the 5-C scheme?
LL: Mixed. Different vendors in the consumer-electronics industry have different vested
interests. Everyone really wants their own standard used.
MCN: How do you come to common ground on that?
LL: In the end, if you look at the fact that all of us want to carry content across the
network -- ultimately, to a television set -- and the MPAA has the content, the only way
they're going to buy into it is if they feel like their content can't be pirated.
And I think most of the vendors have accepted that. It doesn't mean that all of them
like it, but I think most of them have accepted that, and we certainly aren't going to
connect back to the network unless we make sure that we've protected one of our customers.
MCN: It sounds like you expect the consumer-electronics industry to have to move closer
to what the cable industry and the MPAA have agreed upon.
LL: I think they already have, and we're working very closely on the open issues that
are left. So while there is still some contention I don't see any showstoppers
MCN: What are some of the open issues?
LL: Some of them are even just clarifications. Some of them are, 'Gosh, why did you
choose this?' So we're sorting through some of that.
When you look at how many vendors we have in the overall process, any time you
introduce some new kind of technology or some new solution, there are always going to be
questions, and you might have an issue or two with any of the specifications that somebody
puts forward. But I don't see any major showstoppers.
MCN: The letter to the FCC also addressed the area of integrated TV sets that
incorporate set-top features without separate boxes. Is that going to progress separately,
or in tandem with the other areas?
LL: We're actually breaking off the specifications between set-top boxes and integrated
TVs. There are some requirements of the set-top box that may not be on the TV because the
components are integrated, so you don't have to worry about set-top boxes interfacing with
the TV exactly the same way.
But some vendors are going to come into our interops testing with integrated TV sets.
In fact, I believe that in our July one, it looks like at least one vendor will come in
with an integrated television set -- at least they're trying very hard to. If they don't
hit July, they'll hit very shortly afterward.
We have some vendors with the goal of not even going out with a set-top box, but going
out with an integrated TV set.
MCN: By July 2000, or in advance of that?
LL: It's hard to tell at this point until we get through the whole certification
process. I would say that their target is to go out with OpenCable, though, by then.
MCN: Interoperability testing starts in July. How many vendors are lined up to go
LL: The target for the first phase of testing is really our POD or security-module
testing, so it's the first time really to test that. It looks like five or six vendors
will be coming in with POD solutions. They'll also be bringing in integrated TVs or
But there are different components of the whole thing. So you've got your headend
access, you've got your POD, you've got the set-top box and you've got conditional access
that goes on top of that. The total number of vendors will probably be around 15 to 20,
with about five or six doing an end-to-end solution.
This is really for the POD vendors -- they're responsible for bringing in their
partners as a part of this. Most of them are partnering with other vendors.
MCN: How will the testing work? Will it be similar to DOCSIS certification?
LL: We're still trying to determine the whole certification process. This July is
really the very initial phase -- just looking at the security module. As we move into
later this year, we'll work between our industries to come up with an agreed-upon
The lab that we're providing this summer is really kind of an incubator, and also for
us to get a chance to see how close the vendors are to actually meeting the first set of
MCN: When you start giving certifications, what is it going to say to consumers?
LL: That's the piece we're really trying to work through right now. What we'd like to
do is that once someone becomes certified, we want to make sure that from the consumers'
perspective, when they purchase something that's been what we'd call OpenCable-certified,
or cable-certified, or CableLabs-certified [Cable Television Laboratories Inc.], or
whatever the terminology is that we use around it, it works, and we're comfortable that it
works with our networks and interfaces with our networks. The challenge is that the number
of vendors and the amount of components are very complex.
MCN: Do different vendors want to convey different things from certification?
Are you getting different ideas, for example, about what to call it?
LL: We haven't really started discussions on what even to call it. In another month or
two, I'd be more than happy to give you an update on what we've decided.
MCN: Is testing going to run in stages? Are you going to be able to handle everybody at
once, or will it run in waves like DOCSIS?
LL: It will probably be in stages and in waves. We have different stages of testing at
different times throughout next year. It certainly will be a scheduling challenge with all
of the vendors and trying to make sure that they can all actually hook up with the network
equipment, and that there is interoperability between components.
MCN: Are you going to have to expand the infrastructure available for testing?
LL: We're in the process of expanding it right now for the interops testing. In terms
of how we staff it, that's still being determined. I believe CableLabs will run the
overall process, and we are bringing additional equipment right now to begin that.
MCN: I'm wondering about physical space, as well. Are you looking at other facilities,
LL: We've actually sat down with our facilities department and kind of helped to plan.
Now, what we've got to do is look at the timing of our lab testing versus PacketCable
testing and DOCSIS testing.
We actually believe that we'll be able to share some equipment, and even share some lab
space, depending on what kind of testing is going on and when. We're kind of putting
together an overall master plan. So far, it's been really good.
MCN: The hard deadline puts OpenCable in a different boat than DOCSIS. Given the
vagaries of things that could happen in testing, how difficult will it be for
manufacturers to get testing and certification done in time?
LL: It's going to be a challenge. Some of the manufacturers are actually leveraging
some equipment they have today, though. Some of them are coming up with brand-new
equipment, while some are leveraging equipment they have and adding in the security
interfaces and some additional feature functions.
So I think some of the testing for some of the manufacturers will be stringent and have
a longer cycle than testing for some of the vendors that are able to leverage something
they already have.
MCN: Your background covers a lot of work in intelligent networks and customer-service
systems. Will there be a lot of differences in working with OpenCable?
LL: There are a lot of similarities, if you look at the fact that there are networks. I
actually sat down one day with Laurie Priddy, who came from a telecommunications
background. We're sitting there one day, looking at cable-architecture diagrams, and she
said, 'You know, this is a CO [central office] in the telecom world, but this is a headend
in our world.' I said, 'OK, now I get it.' She took the whole diagram and put it in
telecom terms that made it click just like that.
There are some technical differences, but my background helps a lot, too, particularly
when you look at something like deploying a new generation of set-top boxes. I've been on
the operational side of networks. I designed new intelligent-network elements. I
understand if someone says, 'I'm worried about having two-way access and whether or not
they can actually flood my network.' The truth is, technically, they can.
People who haven't been in that kind of a world before don't necessarily understand
that or believe that it's real. I know that it is. It's not a fun thing to experience.
MCN: Are there a lot of cultural differences, or are those minimized on the technical
side of the business?
LL: There certainly are some cultural differences. But I think there are a lot of
similarities in terms of both industries moving at lightning speed and being surrounded by
technology that's moving at lightning speed -- and in the need to make sure at the end
that there's a solid business model and that the technologies work.