The NCTA held a conference call this afternoon to try to clarify the issues surrounding CableCARD and it included an open Q&A. I like seeing this kind of thing, the NCTA recognized they have had a major PR issue with CableCARD, and with the most recent flare-up in the blogosphere they decided to get in front of the issue. I applaud them for that, I felt the call was a straight-forward presentation of the history of OpenCable and how we got to the point we’re at today, and the Q&A session was free-flowing. Representing the NCTA on the call were Brian Dietz from NCTA’s Communications group, William Check, Senior Vice President of Science & Technology, and Neal Goldberg, Vice President & General Counsel.
I did miss a couple of minutes in the middle of their presentation when my cell phone dropped the call. I quickly switched to Skype for the rest of the call, lesson learned – use Skype for this kind of thing in the future. I don’t think I missed much though, when I got back in they were still covering the history and I’ve been following that since early days. I’ll listen to the recording to make sure I didn’t miss anything important. (Nope.)
One interesting thing, the NCTA repeatedly praised or mentioned TiVo when talking about CE companies that have worked with the cable industry to work out issues with CableCARDs and to develop the Tuning Resolver.
From my point of view there really wasn’t any new ground covered, but then I’ve been following OpenCable, OCAP, tru2way, etc, pretty closely for a long time. So I’d be a little surprised if they did cover something I’d missed. But it was a good overview of the situation and their arguments do make sense. They pointed out that there are only roughly 380,000 consumer electronic devices using CableCARD – that’s TVs, TiVos, PCs, etc. And the cable industry overall has over 65 million video customers in the US. So the total percentage if people using UDCPs who will have issues with SDV is pretty small. And all of those using CableCARD TiVos will be able to use the Tuning Resolver, and likely all of those with a PC using CableCARD. The big question will be those using CableCARD-enabled TVs – many of them do not have USB ports, which means no Tuning Resolver. Those units that do have USB ports will require a firmware update, so it comes down to vendor support.
Gary Merson of HD Guru asked why cable companies don’t remove the analog channels to free bandwidth for digital channels instead of using SDV. This would inconvenience those using analog cable without a STB, for example connecting it directly to an old TV. Well, I think those numbers really help explain it. While Gary made the argument that CableCARD customers are likely to be premium customers paying for higher service tiers, there are a lot fewer of them than there are subscribers using analog cable. Cutting off analog channels would inconvenience many more users than implementing SDV does. On top of that, cable MSOs would have to provide STBs to all of their customers, which would be an enormous expense. And basic cable customers don’t like STBs any more than premium customers do.
Also, under an agreement with Congress and the FCC, it is an all-or-nothing proposition. Cable MSOs are required to continue offering an analog basic tier, unless they eliminate all analog channels. Going 100% digital is an exception to the requirement. But that would be a radical change to many MSOs, and again a great cost.
There are other business reasons not to take that approach. With the digital conversion coming to broadcast TV in February 2009, providing analog service is a business opportunity for cable. Antenna users are faced with adding a converter box or other device (such as a TiVo) with a digital tuner, buying a new TV with a digital tuner, or switching to a new service – analog cable. Analog cable would allow them to connect directly to their existing TV without adding another device.
Gary also asked for some assurance that consumers who invest in new tru2way TVs and devices will not be faced with another upgrade in 3-4 years, as those who invested in UDCP CableCARD devices are facing. I think the NCTA’s response was reasonable. Cable MSOs are deploying tru2way-enabled STBs now, with Time Warner in the lead and Comcast currently in second place. Over the next couple of years this will be an investment in millions of STBs and hundreds of millions of dollars. So the cable MSOs are not going to be eager to make that investment obsolete. But they really can’t state “Tru2way will not be replaced in the next five years” or anything like that. Predicting the future in a technical field is risky business. And despite what some might think, the cable industry isn’t one large conspiracy and each MSO is free to adopt different technology and services, within the regulatory framework.
However, I guarantee that tru2way will be replaced, someday. Probably not in the next 5 years, maybe not even 10, but it will happen. That’s just how technology works. Something bigger, better, faster will come along and the industry will shift. The cable industry tried to bypass CableCARD by going straight to DCAS, but when they lost that fight they were forced to invest hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, in CableCARD infrastructure. That will discourage any immediate push for DCAS, as they’ll want to recoup their investment. But DCAS, or something like it, seems to be the next logical step down the road. And when that happens it is likely there will be some new features that are not accessible to CableCard/tru2way devices. However, as more devices are upgradeable in software and firmware it is hard to say. Perhaps there will be a generic DCAS module that could plug into a CableCARD slot and add DCAS support to those devices. I wouldn’t rule it out, especially as the cable industry would probably like that to keep their CableCARD STBs compatible. But I wouldn’t worry about any of this in the near term.
They did say that the Tuning Resolver is a high priority for the cable industry and that development is still on track for summer availability. As I reported recently, it looks like early July will be the earliest possible availability date.
Ben Drawbaugh of Engadget shared his horror story of having his cable MSO try to talk him out of using CableCARD and the installers not knowing how to handle the install, and I have to second that. While Charter didn’t try to talk me out of using CableCARD, and the installers who have come to my home has been polite and courteous, they clearly didn’t have enough training and experience installing CableCARD. When I had my first install, as a TiVo Series3 reviewer, I could understand it as I was the first person in the territory to have CableCARDs installed in a TiVo and there weren’t even many CableCARD TVs installed. But over a year later the experience wasn’t much different. And when I’ve had trouble and needed support, the support techs are also woefully confused by CableCARD. As of the last time I called the automated system still didn’t have an option for CableCARD in the menus. Fortunately I’m fairly educated on the technology and determined (aka stubborn), and I was able to make a contact in my local office who has been willing to handle my issues without my dealing with the standard support system. The cable MSOs really need to do a better job on the customer service and support front with CableCARD.
I think Ben was a little confused on DCR+. My understanding of the DCR+ CE proposal pretty much agrees with how the NCTA sees it. It would be today’s DCR with the addition of limited two-way support for specific services such as SDV, PPV, and VOD. But it would not be an open platform for expansion and future services as OCAP is. Of course, specs can evolve so other features could be added to DCR+. However, at this point I personally think DCR+ is DOA. Consumer electronics vendors such as Panasonic and TiVo are already breaking ranks and developing OCAP/tru2way support, and virtually the entire cable industry is investing in OCAP/tru2way. DCR+ just doesn’t have the support to make it.
The call was recorded, and if you really want to know about the history and current situation I encourage you to listen to it, especially if you’re a blogger who covers this arena. It will be available after 15:00 EST today through May 25th (I guess they keep them for a month). Call 1-800-475-6701 and enter access code 920821.
A lot of bloggers were on the call, I know HD Guru, Engadget, Zatz Not Funny (which has already posted about the call), Multichannel News, and others were all on there, so keep watching for their posts.