NCTA Conference Call On CableCARD And Tru2Way

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.

About MegaZone

MegaZone is the Editor of Gizmo Lovers and the chief contributor. He's been online since 1989 and active in several generations of 'social media' - mailing lists, USENet groups, web forums, and since 2003, blogging.    MegaZone has a presence on several social platforms: Google+ / Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / LiveJournal / Web.    You can also follow Gizmo Lovers on other sites: Blog / Google+ / Facebook / Twitter.
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  • Gryphon

    the cable industry isn’t one large conspiracy

    Indeed not. Like most industries, it’s several large competing conspiracies. :)

  • Dave Zatz

    Oh, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy and I fully expect tru2way to be replaced one day. The cable industry is going to end up spending a lot of money producing and supporting a very small number (relatively) of these tuning adapters. Guess that’s their tax for not working something out with the CEA before gen 1 CableCARD retail devices started shipping (and those TV owners are most likely out of luck). They did bring up an interesting point… there will come a time when they move away from MPEG-2 – but how to serve both older and newer boxes during a transition with limited bandwidth (that took us to SDV to begin with)?

    As a consumer, I’d be happy dropping pay TV. There’s enough good stuff out there between ATSC OTA and Netflix. However, I don’t live alone. And we’re on special for $60/mo which is about what I’d be paying them for an Internet-only account anyway. So the cable TV is actually a free perk. ;) However, I’m probably replacing one of my CableCARD TiVo’s with an OTA-only HTPC.

  • HDTiVo

    Let me phrase it this way: I doubt tru2way devices will be obsolete any much more quickly than black and white TVs were.

    I don’t know how quickly cable will need mpeg4 when they have SDV and can lop off the occassional analog channel at least. Probably quite a while. The impact may be minimal, with devices like TiVoes and HTPCs having mpeg4 capability already built in. This is all about the TiVoes and (maybe) HTPCs anyway, not the TVs, from a practical viewpoint.

    I wrote yesterday about digital transition for cable, and brought up those commitments related to the integration ban waivers for going all digital. Whatever happened with all that and what’s the potential effect?

    I hope there is an internet link to the recording ’cause I ain’t listenin’ from Europe. ;)

  • Dave Zatz

    HDTiVo download Skype and put a few bucks in the account. International calling is pennies or fractions of pennies a minute.

    I think it’s too hard and costly for the cable-cos to go all digital now in most areas because of all the existing cable boxes or homes without boxes that would suddenly need them. About two years ago, it seemed like Comcast was trying to get everyone on digital boxes (gave me and a buddy one for free) but I’m not sure if that’s still an active initiative.

  • HDTiVo

    Its been years since I paid to listen to a conference call live or recorded; well, this is the cable industry. :eek:

    Is it really worth the time after this writeup? Was it much more informative/open than a newscast in China?

  • Vince

    I guess Cablevision isn’t so bad install-wise. When I got the CC’s for the TiVoHD upstairs they sent one guy who brought along another guy who’d actually done a CC install. After a quick “why didn’t you just got an SA8300″ Q&A session with the guy he quickly did his job. The longest part of the service visit was him watching me do Guided Setup after the install and waiting as I made sure stuff worked.

  • hemo_jr

    There are a few questions I would have asked:

    1. Towards the beginning of the teleconference, it was mentioned that a cablecard is two-way, but that the (CE) devices that they are installed in (e.g, TiVo S3/HDs) may not be. So why can’t a TiVo be a 2-way device? Couldn’t this be don through a softwware upgrade?

    2. Why do we need a USB device? Why switch from PCMCIA to USB? In doing this you instantly obsolete cablecard devices that don’t have USB ports.

    3. Will a Tru2way usb dongle replace the cable cards? Or will they work in conjunction with each other?

    4. a couple of practical concerns: If we will we be screwing a CATV cable into a USB dongle, how will that not unplug the USB? And will there be a cable-out on the tru2way dongle to plug into the back of the TiVo? My fear is that this tru2way thingy will be a separate box that connects to the TiVo via a USB cable and add significantly to the rats’ nest of cords and cables, lower signal strength, contribute to the overheating and self space issues, and generally be a Major Pain.

    Cablecards are, by themselves, a kludge that resulted from a failure of the involved industries & government to develop the right standards. And that the consumer pays for by the inconvenience, impracticality, and sometimes impossibility of installation. (which is exactly why there are only 300,000+ cable cards in use by consumers). Tru2Way will just pile complexity and consumer pain on this kludge. The next big thing will be when the consumers find something obviously better that eliminates the cable companies from the picture and they revolt. The only reason I stay with CATV is because that is where TiVo provides the most support.

  • MegaZone

    They weren’t asked because I think everyone on the call knew the answers.

    1. No, it can’t be done in software. You need the transceiver hardware to transmit to the head end, and you need to support multiple standards for that communication, such as DSG (DOCSIS Set-top Gateway). The UDCPs in the field, TiVos included, lack the required hardware for two-way communication. And that’s a complex issue – part of the UDCP standard forbids including that hardware. Basically if you want to be certified as a UDCP you can’t had the hardware because of concerns over potential interference with the cable system. If you want to have the hardware you have to be a two-way device, and the standards for that weren’t settled when UDCPs were created.

    2. See #1. You need the transceiver hardware, and that’s what the Tuning Resolver is. USB was selected as the interface because that’s the only interface shared by most UDCPs that can handle it. CableCARD is *NOT* PCMCIA. It may look like it physically, but electrically and electronically it is not. CableCARD slots cannot be used for I/O devices. It is not a switch from PCMCIA to USB, it is adding a USB tranceiver device, the Tuning Resolver, to the UDCP with CableCARD. Which brings us to #3.

    3. No. The Tuning Resolver – which isn’g a ‘tru2way’ dongle at all really, it is just for SDV support – works *with* CableCARD in a UDCP. The CableCARD is an authentication and authorization token. It allows the UDCP to access the cable content – providing channel mapping and decryption of encrypted channels. But it is limited to linear content. The Tuning Resolver provides the hardware needed for bi-directional communication to handle tuning SDV channels. In theory this could be extended to other content that requires two-way communication, such as PPV and VOD, but that is not planned at this time. It is strictly for SDV.

    4. Both the Motorola and Cisco Tuning Resolvers that have been shown are fairly sizable boxes – the same size as their smaller digital cable boxes. So they have enough mass to handle any pull on their own. But USB isn’t so weak anyway, unless you had the weight of several feet of coax hanging from it, I wouldn’t worry. I have a small 4-port USB hub handing off the side of my laptop with four USB cables hanging from it, and I regularly catch the cables on things as I move the laptop and I’ve never had it pull free. USB is actually fairly well designed in that regard. And yes, the boxes show have a coax in and coax out, so you put them in series with the UDCP (aka TiVo). And yes, it is going to be another box which connects to the TiVo via USB and requires its own power connection, as well as coax in and out. So it is going to add to the hassle, and that’s unavoidable. But you only need the Tuning Resolver if your cable company uses SDV and you want access to the SDV channels.

  • Hemo_jr

    Thanks for the explanation. So, for example, a TiVo, which already has at least two small, integrated and inexpensive two-way devices (modem and Ethernet) will need another — this time big, not integrated and expensive (for at least the tuner adapter, the next gen TiVo looks to have tru2way integrated, and hopefully small and inexpensive).

    Any chance that tru2way will allow these theoretical nextgen TiVos to do their daily calls and/or transfer programs between one another? My guess is no, Tru2Way is for the cable companies’ convenience, and will probably be prohibited “because of concerns over potential interference with the cable system.” But it would be great for the average consumer just to be able to use the existing CATV infrastructure, reducing the number of connections and avoiding the telephone and/or Ethernet hassle. But I hope this is allowed. After all, in the call they mentioned that the feds said they did not want things to be construed in such a way as to stifle innovation.

  • Dave Zatz

    “So, for example, a TiVo, which already has at least two small, integrated and inexpensive two-way devices (modem and Ethernet) will need another — this time big, not integrated and expensive (for at least the tuner adapter”

    Doubt it will be expensive. Cable-co will most likely be picking up the bulk of the tab.

    “Any chance that tru2way will allow these theoretical nextgen TiVos to do their daily calls and/or transfer programs between one another? My guess is no, Tru2Way is for the cable companies’ convenience, and will probably be prohibited “because of concerns over potential interference with the cable system.””

    A tru2way TiVo would have two interfaces… The TiVo interface and then whatever the cable-co serves up for PPV, OnDemand, etc. As far as a third-party retail box/service using the cable-co infrastructure for guide data and such, no way. It would be nice to see TiVo use coax for MRV though as Digeo was planning with the retail Moxi DVRs or have built-in Powerline networking as the newer Dish DVRs do.

  • Tom

    To take this discussion on a tangent RE CableCARD installs, the Comcast Boston field guys were very knowledgable about the installs. But I’ve struggled for many months to have them get the billing right for two cards in my S3. Turns out they’ve been overcharging me for two years due to the wrong billing codes.

    Comcast advertises cards as $1.50 each, as long as they are in the same device (i.e. single outlet). If they think you have multiple outlets (e.g. two card enables TV’s) then they charge $5.00 per card, although that’s not stated anywhere in their pricing guide. I gather that’s the billing model for STBs they’ve used for years, since that’s Comcast’s basic STB rental fee.

    If you’re being charged more than $1.50 for your second card in the TiVo, call and complain. I ended up getting a sizeable refund.

    BTW, Comcast states the first cableCARD is free. But that’s only if you have no STB. Again, that’s not clearly stated anywhere.

  • Hemo_jr

    History indicates that the cable companies are closed and proprietary-oriented. It does look grim for Tru2Way to be used to download guide data (much less stuff like Amazon unbox). However it would be great if they allowed some token external bandwidth — say 19k for TiVo or other CE devices. The biggest hurdle for me, in my original adoption of TiVo, was the requirement to string a telephone wire (now I don’t even have a land line). So the idea of replacing that with a cable connection for TiVo cable users looks like a definite plus.

  • Dave Zatz

    Actually, that $1.50 is not universal… Comcast’s site says:

    Disclaimer: Regulated Prices quoted above may not apply in all markets. Please call 1-800-COMCAST to learn more about Regulated Prices for your area.

    I’ve heard of prices all over the map, and in addition to the CableCARD fees as you’ve discovered they may also charge outlet fees on top of that. They also may charge you nothing. I’ve never paid a monthly for a Comcast CableCARD. Depends on the local franchise and who modifies your account. They really need to move to a more transparent and nationwide pricing scheme.

    As far as installs go, I’ve had both good and bad. Plus a missed appointment – when I called in, they couldn’t locate the driver. Huh? And I did complain to my local licensing authority (Montgomery County, MD) that Comcast requires a truckroll for install unlike some of their other regions.

  • Tom

    I guess my point in the above post (other than nagging about billing) is that the service providers are having so many problems with the installs and billing for CableCARDs, one can only imagine the complications of having to do the same for SDV dongle.

  • MegaZone

    Hemo_jr – tru2way is for the cable network online. No communication with the Internet or outside companies, no inter-device communication. So no, it will not support the calls home or transfers. But TiVo could incorporate a DOCSIS cable modem into their boxes if they wanted to, and/or MoCA to support transfers between TiVos in the same household over the cable coax wiring. But you’d still need Ethernet to talk to the PC. And putting DOCSIS modems in each TiVo would be a real waste of money, as most users would not use them – and if you had multiple TiVos in the home you’d really only be able to use one as the cable modem, and the others would have to communicate with it over the network or coax. Not a good idea, really. MoCA could be interesting though.

    tru2way isn’t a new infrastructure, it is a growth of the existing cable infrastructure used for communication with their set top boxes. It isn’t an open network, it is strictly a link between the device and the cable plant head end. It isn’t suitable for other uses.

  • Glenn

    Hemo_jr – actually I think you made a reasonable point. Why do we need this stupid dongle anyway? We have Ethernet access to the internet which is being provided by our cable company (most of the time). In theory if the cable company just installed some equipment in their head end, I could find out the current SDV channels, map a channel on request, etc simply talking IP to that converter box, which would then talk MOT or SA to the local headend equipment. Except for the issue that you might not have internet and might not have it from your cable company, it would be a nicer solution.

    Also, I don’t know that supporting MoCA, if it didn’t add a lot of cost, would be such a bad idea for Tivo. A lot of homes aren’t wired for Ethernet, and wifi still doesn’t work that well for video, especially HD. Having an option to use MoCA to communicate between Tivos or from the Tivo to the internet (via a gateway device) wouldn’t be so bad. Probably a better idea to just build in 802.11n I’d guess, but if it was cheap enough…

    Megazone/Dave – I’m not clear on why anybody thinks that tru2way capable STBs will constrain the MSOs from moving on to something else. These boxes aren’t much different from the current ones except for having a little more memory or a little more CPU power. They’re still just pretty general purpose CPUs with cable communication chips inside. If they decided to move on to something else, and it was possible with the majority of those cable boxes, they’d do it happily, shutting out the tru2way devices in the process. The cable STBs will be capable of doing things that aren’t tru2way. Tru2way may last for a while, but not necessarily because of the installed base of STBs that support it.

    As far as MPEG-2 and h.264… obviously virtually all of the STBs the MSOs have deployed only support MPEG-2. Only recently have NGA boxes with h.264 decoders become available, and I don’t even know if any of them are installed anywhere yet. It will be quite some time before any non-niche channels are deployed using h.264. VOD or PPV could be done partially in h.264, i.e. if your STB supports it, which might help some over time.

    Personally I think cable companies are still going to be in a world of hurt over bandwidth. They want more channels for DOCSIS bonding to offer higher internet speeds for businesses and to compete with Verizon’s FiOS rollout. They want to add LOTS more HD channels, each up to four times the bandwidth of an SD channel in MPEG-2, to compete with the Satellite providers. And services like StartOver (limited network DVR) mean more people are watching unicast/individualized streams. Etc. Moving to 1GHz plants only gets them a little. SDV is certainly a big win, at least for the niche channels. They can maybe 50% more with stat mux QAMs by spending a lot of money.

    Its going to get interesting…

  • Hemo_jr

    Let’s talk least common denominator. The typical household with CATV does not have a PC or Ethernet. What it does have is a CATV drop. The absolute minimum the TiVo needs as far as telecommunication is for downloading guide data and software upgrades. Using anything other than the cable drop to download this increases complexity and is a proven barrier to TiVo/other CE adoption by the consumer. The only real reason that TiVos don’t use cable for the above is that TiVo does not own the cable companies and vice versa. The cable companies certainly provide program data and software updates through the CATV connection. So if Congress’ intent was to level the playing field, here is an example of where that hasn’t happened.

    Connecting TiVos and PCs is not essential to basic TiVo functionality. I could loose my TiVo Desktop and not miss it for months. And unless TiVo stops supporting Ethernet, using DOCSIS will not prevent TiVo PC communication.

    DOCSIS is simply a spec for an OSI layer 1 and layer 2 implementation. TiVo should be theoretically able to connect to a DOCSIS adapter (or put one in its box) stick a protocol stack or stacks of its choice on it and go. Technical issues are not the real issue. Profit, usage and ownership issues are.

    So what is tru2way? a level 7 application? Just to do Tru2Way, the TiVo will need an address assigned by the cable company. This will probably be a private network address (or IPV6 if they are forward thinking). To allow access to the Internet, the cable company will merely need to NAT that address. And the cable companies are already throttling bittorrent, so throttling TiVo traffic should be a cinch. And I am sure that the cable industry can figure out a way to charge somebody for a pathway for TiVo downloads, making it a profit center.

    Tru2Way is a cable industry solution, so ya, they would spec it out to be closed. The cable industry got away with another one. So all my pissing and groaning will probably make no difference. But closed solutions alienate customers. So if the cable industry has any future other than protecting its shrinking market, they do need to start opening things up.