Pace, Moto Unveil Cheap Set-Tops


Both Motorola Inc. and Pace Micro Technologies plc last week heeded the call for sub-$100 equipment.

The two vendors used the venue of the National Show here to introduce new, low-cost set-top boxes for used in cable operators' digital networks.

Last month, Comcast chief technology officer David Fellows spoke of how the availability of a low-cost device could speed the conversion to an all-digital network, allowing cable operators to save huge amounts of bandwidth. And that's not to mention the attendant political benefits.

Last week, Motorola's Broadband Communications Sector and Pace crept closer to delivering on that promise. Motorola unveiled a stripped-down version of its DCT 1700 that, without the analog elements, would cost less than $100. The new DCT 700 set-top would include a MIPS (millions of instructions per second) processor capable of displaying an interactive program guide and video-on-demand programming.

The DCT 700 also includes an MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Expert Group) digital video processor and a real-time return path for services like VOD. Motorola said the set-top was compatible with its MediaCipher conditional access system and includes a 64/256 quadrature amplitude modulation unit.

The DCT 700 also has two front-panel LED displays, an infared receiver (for remote-control purposes) and back-panel outputs for radio-frequency and baseband video and audio outputs. The box itself measures roughly six by eight inches, closer in size to a cable modem than a typical set-top.

"The Motorola DCT 700 presents operators with the means to quickly realize the bandwidth efficiency and inherent security of all-digital video networks," said Motorola Broadband corporate vice president and general manger Carl McGrath.

Although Comcast's call for an eventual all-digital network is driving development, Motorola executives said it's possible newer international cable companies without an embedded analog base may be the first customers for the box in the near term.

For its part, Pace debuted the Digital Cable Adapter, in a one tuner/one decoder form and a dual tuner/dual decoder version.

The dual box is designed to handle typical home setups in which an analog TV set is connected to an analog VCR, allowing users to tape one channel while watching a second, said Pace. The dual adapter would cost $69 in volume, said Pace Micro Technologies America president Neil Gaydon. The single tuner/decoder adapter would cost $34.50 in bulk, he said.

The adapter includes three ports and measures two inches by three inches, close in size to a cable splitter. Gaydon envisions that MSOs would send the adapter by mail to consumers with analog sets as the time approaches for an all-digital conversion.

"It's very, very simple to connect," he said. Nonetheless, "the logistical side will have to be well thought out."

Mailing an adapter to all of a cable system's customers and getting them to plug it into their analog TV sets could prove a monumental task.

The Pace adapter is designed for rudimentary service to secondar TV sets, and doesn't envision VOD and other interactive uses. But Gaydon said the adapter would be able to handle limited amounts of guide data.

It's close in price to what MSOs contemplate, according to Gaydon.

"I would view this as a device worth giving out," he said, adding that production could begin once an order is in hand from an MSO.

Another key feature of the Pace adapter is a bypass mode that enables analog signals to pass through to analog sets until the day the cable operator flips the all-digital switch. "This means cable operators can begin deploying the Pace DCA immediately, to gradually get an adapter to all analog cable customers in preparation for their digital converter," he said.