Tru2way Cable-CE MOU Details Revealed

Reader Glenn pointed out in a comment that the details of the Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) first signed by Sony, and then additional CE vendors, have been revealed in an FCC filing. Both Multichannel News and Light Reading’s Cable Digital News have taken a look at the MOU, and now it is my turn. So, let’s look through the MOU for any interesting tidbits.

The MOU refers to the ‘Founders’ repeatedly – these are the cable MSOs: Comcast Cable, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Bright House Networks, Charter Communications, and Cablevision. New two-way devices are referred to as Interactive Digital Cable Products (IDCP), in contrast to the one-way Unidirectional Digital Cable Products (UDCP). Under the terms of the MOU, the Founders agree to support tru2way on all of their digital cable networks by July 1, 2009 – except for Charter which has until July 1, 2010 to complete their roll-out. The MOU also codifies that the tru2way specifications will be the sole means for IDCPs to access interactive cable services.

While consumer electronics adopters must adhere to the tru2way specifications and license, innovative features that are not specified but that are consistent with the specs and license ‘are allowed and encouraged’. That seems to leave room for innovation, but it remains to be seen how narrowly ‘consistent’ is evaluated. To help ensure solid support for tru2way the cable MSOs have to eat their own dog food, as it were. After July 1, 2009 (again, July 1, 2010 for Charter) the Founders agree that at least 20% of their STBs will support tru2way. That holds until they’ve deployed at least ten million tru2way-enabled STBs. This is to ensure a sufficient install base that the Founders will have a vested interest in ensuring solid support.

Since tru2way is largely a firmware specification, and specifications can evolve, the Founders agree to support any given version of the tru2way Middleware used by an Adopter’s product for five years from the date of that version’s first certification. So, in effect, that should guarantee a minimum product life of five years. Of course, it could easily be longer as Adopter’s products could receive firmware updates, and the Founders could support a Middleware version for longer than five years. Clearly it would be up to the Adopter, the CE vendor, to provide updates to newer tru2way Middleware versions, which is only fair. And to help ensure that is possible, there is an equal access provision in the MOU. Any given tru2way Middleware revision will be available to Adopters at the same time it is available to Founders. So the MSO’s won’t have any unfair advantage in being able to bring newer features to market first.

As for guide data, which was long a bone of contention over OCAP, any Founder’s digital cable system which carriers a CBS broadcast signal (which is pretty much all of them) which contains the Gemstar-TV Guide EPG data and where that Founder has an agreement covering the Gemstar data, must not block or remove said data from the CBS signal. In English? Well, Gemstar-TV Guide has an agreement with CBS to carry their EPG data. This data is used by a number of TVs, VCRs, DVRs, DVD Recorders, etc, to provide a simple on-screen EPG. The data is carried in the VBI, the vertical blanking interval, and are not part of the video itself. This has been an issue in the past as some cable MSOs have stripped out this data from the broadcast when processing the network feed for redistribution, hence making it inaccessible to CE devices that rely on it for their EPG.

So this agreement means that the Founder agree to not block or strip the data, when it is carried by the local CBS affiliate and they can legally do so, of course. This provides CE vendors with a data source for a ‘native’ EPG, as opposed to relying on the tru2way MSO-provided EPG, or a out-of-band EPG downloaded separately, as in a TiVo. The broadcast EPG does generally lack the full level of detail found in a downloaded EPG, or even the MSOs EPG, but it has the advantage of being readily available in the received signal and gives the CE vendor the ability to process and use the data as they wish, unlike the tru2way guide which comes as-is.

While the agreement seems to treat tru2way as the primary means of navigation, Adopters are free to overlay their own ‘native’ navigation with four prerequisites: 1. It must be initiated by the user each time (such as through a remote action), 2. it must be only for navigation (no ads, etc), 3. It must be transitory (sounds like once the action is complete it should return to tru2way-mode), and 4. it must appear the same on all channels. So no special ABC navigation screen that isn’t used on NBC, etc.

There is a ‘sunset’, or exit clause for the MOU. Starting July 1, 2009, if fewer than 500,000 new retail IDCPs are connected to the Founders’ networks within any given 24 month period then the Founders are no longer bound by the MOU. Basically, if the Adopters, the CE vendors, don’t hold up their end of the bargin and produce enough IDCP devices, then the cable MSOs are no longer bound to spend their money supporting tru2way on their networks and they’re free to stop, try something else, etc. Considering the number of TVs, DVRs, etc, sold at retail in this country each year, this shouldn’t be a problem – if and only if the CE vendors step up and start tru2way-enabling a sufficient number of device models. So the ball is in their court.

Licensing for the IDCPs will be under the existing CableLabs licenses, with some amendments. Certification of devices will be through CableLabs IDCP testing. Once a vendor has had five mutually agreed upon devices certified by CableLabs, then they are eligible to self-certify future devices. This is one of the compromises in the agreement. CE vendors didn’t want the expense and hassle of going through CableLabs for each new product, while the cable industry didn’t want the potential havoc caused by bad devices being connected to their networks. So now once a vendor has proven their competence level through CableLabs certification, they can be free of that requirement.

Under the MOU CableLabs will establish a Founders Advisory Board (FAB) which will apparently serve as a kind of arbitration group when changes to the tru2way hardware specification are proposed. As the board is currently specified there are nine votes – one for each of the Founders, and one for the CE Adopters as a block, one for the IT Adopters as a block, and one for the content providers as a block. That means that, should they vote in unison, the cable MSOs would always carry a majority. And you’d actually need two MSOs to break ranks and vote with the other blocks to swing the majority. But the vote is also only advisory and non-binding, so I’m not sure what it is in aid of other than as an opinion poll for the parties involved. And, of course, the FCC still has final say in the end.

CableLabs also agrees to approve or disapprove any new digital output system or content protection system within 180 days of the proposal being submitted by an Adopter, on a ‘reasonable and nondiscriminatory basis’. This will probably come into play with technologies akin to TiVo’s TiVoGuard, which protects TiVoToGo transfers. As CE vendors look to innovate and develop whole home distribution systems, etc, there may be new technologies developed to satisfy the rights holders that their content is being protected. And if CableLabs disapproves the technology, or simply fails to act within 180 days, then the Adopter can appeal to the FCC which is expected to handle the appeal in a 90-day process. Remember that a while back the NFL and MPAA tried to block TiVoGuard and TivoToGo, but the FCC approved it.

But there’s another way to get a new technology approved. If four members of the MPAA agree that the new system provides adequate content protection, then that technology will be automatically approved by CableLabs.

If tru2way is sunset and CableLabs defines a successor to CableCARD or tru2way (such as DCAS) then Adopters who are party to the MOU may participate in the development of the successor.

The definitions have some interesting tidbits. Under the MOU, ‘Digital Cable System’ only covers systems with one or more QAM channels, operating with a capacity of 750MHz or higher and with a minimum of 5,000 basic cable subscribers.

Not a lot of information, really, but it is clearly a compromise with some give and take by both the cable MSOs and the consumer electronics vendors, which is what we needed to un-roadblock two-way cable development. It is interesting that Charter gets an extra year to complete their tru2way roll-out, compared to the other five Founder MSOs. I guess Charter must be further behind in their progress than the others. Of course, I just happen to currently reside in Charter territory. Note though that the dates are for completion of deployment, some areas already have tru2way support and many more will before the year is out.

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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