Start Getting Ready for PODs Now


Now that the high-definition glow of the Consumer Electronics Show is a fading vestige of gizmos, the work of the few becomes the work of the many.

The few
are the cable and consumer-electronics executives who crafted the groundbreaking "plug-and-play" digital TV agreement five weeks ago. The many
are the people who need to get ready for it.

Getting ready for plug-and-play — which helps the effort toward a nationwide retail footprint for cable video services — starts with getting ready for PODs.

POD is short for point of deployment. Depending on who's talking, a POD can be a receptacle slot, or the card that slides into it.

In general, CE manufacturers are busy with the POD slot and cable is busy with the POD card. Like locks and keys, they don't work without each other.

The POD card contains the secrets that keep premium services premium. The POD slot assures that the device that holds it (the "host") is a known and trusted entity.

To give these terms some context, think of the host device as a digital TV, bought by the guy who wants a great picture, digital-cable service, and a few premium channels — but not if it means he has to take a set-top box. (The host can be other things, but for now, let's stick with a digital or high-definition TV.)

Together, the card and the slot engage in secret handshakes to assure that both are on the up and up: That neither the card nor the host is an imposter.

The secrets of the secret handshake between the POD slot and the POD card are governed by the acronym that supplied the title for this column: PHILA, which stands for "POD Host Interface Licensing Agreement."

Fee PHILA foe fum

(Pronunciation observations: Some people pronounce PHILA's first vowel as "Fie-lah." Others say it as "Feel-uh." Nobody seems to say it like "Philadelphia.")

PHILA is administered by Cable Television Laboratories Inc. Manufacturers who sign it get access to secret numbers, which they use when building POD slots into their wares.

The secret numbers, arranged just so, become useful in the authentication of premium services once a POD card is present. (Like when the guy who bought the new set for the great picture, digital cable service, and a handful of premiums orders those services, and subsequently receives a POD card from his local cable provider to enable them.)

This raises plug-and-play's first operations issue: Getting the actual POD card to customers for the services they want.

Do retailers stock cable's POD cards, too? (If so, are most retailers set up with active cable drops, to do the authentication process in-house?)

Alternatively, the cable operator could drop the card in the mail or swing by the house. Regardless, it's a new thing, as day-to-day cable system operations go. It needs attention.

Once the card is slipped into the slot and the secret handshakes begin, another wrinkle emerges, at least in the first version of the plug-and-play deliverables: The "host" device (the digital TV) is very specifically one-way. That means there's no upstream spigot to squirt information back to the cable operator.

Result: The customer has to call in. That's true of satellite services, too.

When POD customers phone in, they'll have to alert the customer care agent to at least two numbers: Those of the host, and those of the POD. Think of repeating your frequent-flier number to a customer care agent — twice — and you're in the zone as to how many digits make up the secret handshakes.

Then there are the technological effects: The passing of secrets between POD and host uses a cryptography certificate exchange standard (sexily) known as "x.509."

Getting support for x.509 within installed Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. headends, so that the POD-host security mechanisms can occur, requires a code revision. A software download. Most engineers describe the upgrade as "not trivial."

CE needs answers

Meanwhile, the more active manufacturers in the plug-and-play agreement, like Panasonic Consumer Electronics and Samsung Electronics America Inc., need some answers, too. They need to know how much of how many systems are ready for PODs, and anything that would give them an indication of scale.

What the cable industry does (or doesn't do) to make the one-way devices successful pretty much sets the tone for what happens with the much more attractive two-way TVs. Because of that, it seems useful to do what it takes to support the first steps, which means getting ready for PODs. Which brings us back to where we started.

It's important to note that these "what's next" discussions are still brewing — it really is all that new. PODs are a part of it; other "to-do's" will assuredly crop up.

Next time, we'll look at the deadlines proposed in the National Cable & Telecommunications Association-Consumer Electronics Association agreement on plug-and-play, and what they mean.

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