Set-Tops Advance Boldly Into '04

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Cable's major set-top box vendors have three priorities for 2004: Build, ship and deploy advanced set-tops; tweak those designs with new services like multiroom digital video recorders and high-definition video on demand, and build, ship and deploy still more-advanced set-tops.

A key priority for MSOs is to get the hot set-top products — digital video recorders and HDTV units — to market before the full onslaught from Rupert Murdoch's DirecTV Inc. takes hold. And the industry's set-top vendors are hearing that message loud and clear.

DVRs ON RISE

Scientific-Atlanta Inc. said it shipped 361,000 DVR or HDTV set-tops in the fourth quarter of 2003, representing half of its overall set-top shipments for the period.

For its part, Motorola Inc. said under 25% of the 1.4 million set-tops it shipped in the quarter were "advanced" set-tops — basically HD or DVR units — but that number is expected to increase in 2004.

Motorola has begun shipping the single-tuner DCT 6208 DVR-HD set-top (see related story).

"We feel really good about the product," said Motorola Broadband Communications Sector director of strategic marketing Bernadette Vernon. "Everyone is in the process of launching."

The DCT 6208 complements the 6200HDTV set-top, which Motorola has been shipping for more than one year.

For S-A, the dual-tuner Explorer 8000 DVR has been the workhorse, as the company has shipped 824,000 units as of year-end 2003.

All told, S-A has shipped 467,000 HDTV set-tops since inception. The HD version of the Explorer 8000 began shipping in December, said director of strategic planning and business development Dave Davies.

By summer, S-A expects to deploy the multiroom Explorer 8300 HD/DVR set-top.

"We see these segments as two distinct markets," Davies said. "The DVR seems to appeal to all income levels," he said, while HD "is very much a high-income phenomenon."

LOWER-END SHIFT

As set-top vendors increasingly shift to the higher end boxes, that causes a net change in the lower end units.

Davies said shipments for S-A's Explorer 2200 and 3200 are about even, although the 3200 has slightly more memory and additional capabilities.

"The 2200 is still active and meets many MSO's entry level digital subscriber requirements," he said.

S-A's basic HD set-top is the Explorer 3250, being used by Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and Charter Communications Inc..

The single-tuner, Digital Audio Video Council-based set-top has a companion Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification-based set-top, the 4200, which is being shipped to Cablevision Systems Corp.

"That product has more capacity, data and applications," Davies said, because all the out-of-band signaling takes place within the DOCSIS channel. That box enables Cablevision to offer advanced interactive services.

The dual-tuner Explorer 8000 that S-A is shipping today has an 80-Gigabit hard drive, but can be expanded, Davies said. The HD version has a 160-Gb hard drive, and is now being used by Time Warner Cable in Green Bay, Wisc.

Motorola is phasing out the workhorse DCT 2000 in favor of the DCT 2500, said Vernon, and the same is true for the DCT 5100 HD set-top, which was superseded by the DCT 6200 in last year's third quarter.

6208: AN UPGRADE

And the upgrade to the DCT 6200 is the DCT 6208, which combines a single-tuner DVR with HDTV.

"The majority of the top MSOs are in the process of launching the 6208," Vernon said. Insight Communications Co. is presently deploying the DCT 6208, while Comcast Corp. is finishing testing the set-top, sources said.

Armstrong Utilities also has a DCT 6208 contract with Motorola, and RCN Corp. has begun an unannounced "soft launch" of the 6208 in New York City. In New York, RCN competes with Time Warner Cable, which has had Explorer 8000s in the market for months.

"We are in volume production" of the 6208, Vernon said. "We recognize the need for a multiroom DVR box. There is a high desire to have capability in multiple rooms."

Motorola also is working on a dual tuner DVR, which sources say should be available this summer.

Motorola also has the DCT 700 on its drawing boards. That low-cost set-top is designed for the all-digital system.

Some Latin American operators already have the DCT700, she said, and the box is also in U.S. MSO lab trials.

"Discussions continue on the low-cost box concept," she said.

At the other end, Charter is testing the dual-tuner Broadband Media Center in Rochester, Minn., and Adelphia Communications Corp. plans a similar test.

Those BMCs can be configured to run any software stack, or the Digeo software, Vernon said. One of the main benefits is the box's multiroom DVR capability.

COMPATIBLE PACE

Pace Micro Technologies plc is rolling out its 510 digital set-top model, a unit compatible with the S-A platform, for Time Warner, Bright House Networks and Comcast, said vice president of marketing David Novak.

Pace also has been shipping the 550 HD set-top to Time Warner and Bright House. "We're in a number of their divisions," he said. "It's far exceeding our expectations."

Pace also is working on a Motorola compliant HD set-top, the 755. "We're still in the design development stage," Novak said.

Pace's 755 HD set-top will have a DOCSIS-embedded modem, allowing MSOs to use the DOCSIS channel for out-of-band signaling. Comcast has ordered the 755, Novak said, which is slated to come out later this year.

Pace is doing development work on a DVR, which could be released by year-end, Novak said. But the vendor already has plenty of DVR experience, shipping set-tops with hard disk drives for Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting plc direct-to-home platform in the United Kingdom.

"We've got a lot of experience with the Sky Plus PVR box," he said. The unit is a dual-tuner DVR, but it is not HDTV-capable.

"The target platform is going to be an HDTV DVR dual tuner box," Novak said. "The goal is to have mass deployments by Christmas."

PIONEER'S DUAL MOVE

In the next several months, Pioneer Electronics Corp. will debut its dual tuner, HDTV DVR, the Voyager 4000, said vice president of software engineering Haig Krakirian.

The Voyager 4000 builds on the Voyager 1000 and 3000 standard definitions digital set-top products lines, with two million boxes deployed, and the Voyager 3510 HD, in use by TWC and Bright House.

The Voyager 4000 sports a 120 Gb drive, a 150-MHz processor, 64 Mb of memory, chipsets from Broadcom Corp. and the industry's first Linux operating in system.

"Internally, Linux helps us standardize on an operating system and gives us flexibility in features and functions that we can introduce quickly like 1394 and hard disk interfaces," Krakirian said. "It also opens the door for developers."

UP NEXT

A year from now, Pioneer plans to introduce the Voyager 5000. In addition to DVR and HD capability, the box will have a DVD recordable drive and will be compliant with the OpenCable Applications Platform. Consumers will be able to archive content on the DVD in a copy-once mode. The box's 300 MHz processing speed and 128 Mb of memory will allow it to handle OCAP functions.

"We're definitely behind OCAP," Krakirian said.

Pioneer also is developing "media receivers," the cable plug-and-play device for plasma television sets. The media receiver will have four inputs and five outputs in a set-top box sized device.

Due next year, it will be an advancement to the one-way point-of-deployment devices Pioneer plans to have ready this summer.

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