At a "roundtable discussion" on digital TV that
the Federal Communications Commission convened May 20 in Washington, D.C., the tone of
commissioner Susan Ness was blunt: "Make no mistake: The clock is ticking on digital
Ness appealed for "heightened cooperation, together
with a sense of urgency," on the part of several industries -- cable, broadcasters,
content creators, consumer-electronics manufacturers and retailers -- in delicate ongoing
negotiations on the details of digital TV.
"We cannot allow delays in completing compatibility
and interoperability standards to stand in the way," she added.
FCC chairman William Kennard, speaking minutes earlier, put
it more succinctly: "The American people are waiting."
And the cable industry, led by the OpenCable initiative, is
hitting its deadlines in order to hold up its end of the digital-television bargain.
While it's not clear just how fervently American consumers
want their digital TV, it's clear that cable companies are rushing to go digital -- both
for the added capacity and the enhanced signal quality it promises.
For the cable industry, the OpenCable project, being
managed out of Cable Television Laboratories Inc., is center stage of the digital-TV
CableLabs said the summer of 1999 promises major progress
in building on the substantial developments that have already taken place in the area of
specifications -- in particular, the IEEE 1394 "fire-wire" interface and copy
Representatives from cable and the other industries present
at the May 20 FCC meeting agreed to a request by Kennard that they prepare, by July 1, a
timetable for hitting key milestones on the way toward making interoperable digital
set-tops available to consumers by July 2000.
Lisa Lee, director of the OpenCable project at CableLabs,
said interindustry talks are under way to assure that this schedule is completed by July
The OpenCable process focuses on defining specifications
for interfaces and protocols in digital-TV-delivery systems. These specs are being written
by "drafting groups" with members from the various industries. The
specifications are then put out for review by a larger group of interested companies -- a
group that had grown to 327 by late May, Lee said.
After revisions, the specs are submitted for adoption by
standards bodies such as the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers and the
International Telecommunications Union.
One key spec -- covering copy protection in removable
point-of-deployment security modules (PODs) -- is due to be submitted this month for
ratification by an SCTE standards committee. It incorporates the "Digital
Transmission Content Protection" -- the so-called 5C copy protection --
authentication approach, with encrypted key exchange and content scrambling.
The cable industry, Lee said, embraced 5C because it's the
only copy-protection scheme supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, which
represents major movie studios: "It's important to us that the MPAA be satisfied that
their intellectual property is protected," she added.
CableLabs is on schedule to hold its first
"interop" gathering for OpenCable vendors in July at its Louisville, Colo.,
facilities -- this one focusing on POD testing, Lee noted. Six vendor teams are expected,
each including a conditional-access vendor and a set-top or TV manufacturer.
Also slated for July is the release to participating
companies of draft specs for the software building blocks for providing video-on-demand
and interactive pay-per-view content through digital set-tops and TVs, Lee said.
These two specs, she noted, "both talk about how to
interact with the network for feature-rich applications. There are many other software
specifications we're considering, covering how we want to handle things like e-commerce,
interactive advertising and Internet browsing."
The OpenCable team -- being directed on behalf of the
CableLabs board of directors by Glenn Britt, president of Time Warner Cable -- has also
scheduled an Aug. 5 project-status report in Denver for interested vendors.
"We had a briefing a year ago, and in discussions with
vendors, we concluded that it was time to do it again," Lee said.
Another ongoing dialog is with retailers -- the companies
that will be selling the set-tops and digital-cable-ready TVs to consumers. "This is
a whole new business model for cable operators, who've always leased set-tops in the
past," Lee noted.
The OpenCable talks focus on the logistics of providing
security modules at retail. Individual MSOs can build on these discussions to develop
their own individual marketing strategies and business arrangements with retailers, Lee
Robert Wells is a consultant to Cable Television