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CES 2009: Comcast, TWC To Flip Tru2way Switch By July 1

Las Vegas -- Comcast and Time Warner Cable executives said they’re on track to enable support for retail devices compatible with CableLabs' tru2way interactive TV specification across their footprints by July 1.

The six biggest U.S. MSOs committed to the July 2009 deadline in pacts with major consumer-electronics companies signed last summer. The deal effectively resolved the cable industry’s disagreement with CE companies about how operators will provide access to two-way cable services.

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Ten of Time Warner Cable’s 22 divisions have now deployed tru2way, which represents about 50% of its digital base or 12 million homes passed, said Kevin Leddy, the operator’s executive vice president of technology policy and product management.

“We’re on track to get all of our divisions, both Motorola and SA, rolled out by July,” Leddy said. He spoke Saturday on the CES panel “Tru2way Here and Now,” moderated by CTAM president and CEO Char Beales.

Bob Faught, Comcast senior vice president of retail and alternate channel sales, said the company also is getting ready to have all its systems up and running by July 1. Comcast in October turned on tru2way support in Chicago and Denver systems, as part of working with Panasonic to sell tru2way-based HDTVs through limited retail outlets in those markets.

Also by July 1, the six MSOs pledged that 20% of all new cable set-tops would be tru2way-enabled, to ensure common reliance on the spec. “The idea was that this would be the cooperative path forward to interactive TV for everybody,” said Jud Cary, CableLabs vice president of video technology policy.

On this front Time Warner Cable has led its peers, having deployed 2.4 million tru2way-capable set-tops to date. Of those, 1.4 million set-tops run TWC’s Digital Navigator interactive program guide. Leddy added that Bright House Networks has rolled out 300,000 tru2way-based boxes.

Leddy said he was hopeful that tru2way technology would let CE manufacturers deliver more sophisticated cable-ready devices, such as those that incorporate Blu-ray Disc players. That’s because such advanced devices are too expensive for an operator like Time Warner Cable to justify buying in volume, he said.

The MSO is examining ways of getting Internet content to the TV, Leddy added, and said tru2way-based third-party devices may be better suited to doing that. “We’re looking at is, is there some way to get YouTube clips on our set-top? Or even have Netflix have access to our set-top boxes? That’s a device I would love to build for our customers, but that would of course be a rather expensive device.”

Time Warner Cable buys about 2 million set-tops every year. “Adding any incremental function to the boxes means we’re spending a lot more capital,” Leddy said. “Cable can provide a good, middle-of-the-road set-top to customers. But we can’t afford to build and lease [the equivalent of] a TiVo Series 3 [which provides broadband-delivered content and home-theater features].”

Continued Leddy, “At this point our set-tops are not necessarily capable of doing all the search and navigation functions that customers want… I see tru2way as a way to put applications into a more sophisticated device that consumers want.”

Stephen Goldstein, Samsung Electronics business development manager, said the CE maker was committed to tru2way and that he’d like to see more programmers exploit its capabilities.

“It’s a great platform for the cable programmers so we’d really like to see them out there writing applications and promoting the benefits of interactive cable,” he said.

Another one of cable’s goals with tru2way -- the consumer-facing name for OpenCable, which the industry still uses internally -- is to increase supplier diversity.

Of the 1.4 million tru2way boxes TWC has deployed, 300,000 are from Samsung, “which by the way are working extremely well,” Leddy said. “We’re able to bring Samsung set-tops into our mix a lot more easily with tru2way.”

Asked how many of Panasonic’s tru2way sets have been sold through retail partners in Chicago and Denver, Comcast’s Faught said he did not know the actual number. “It’s not thousands of units,” he said. “What we’ve focused on this launch is to make it as simple as possible for the consumer to get it installed.”

Victor Carlson, director of marketing for Panasonic’s display group, declined to say how many units have been purchased but said sales of the tru2way models have been in line with its other TVs. “What’s been important is gauging customer reaction,” he said. “Keep in mind it’s a new technology not just for our customers but also retailers.”

Until tru2way hits critical mass, cable operators are planning to enable support for the lighter-weight Enhanced TV Binary Information Format (EBIF), across millions of its existing digital set-tops. According to Leddy, the current plan of the largest operators is to have “somewhere in the neighborhood” of 10 million set-tops equipped with EBIF by end of 2009.

As for downloadable security -- once considered to be a lower-cost solution than CableCards for meeting the separable-security mandate of the FCC -- Leddy said the economics favor simply continuing on the CableCard path.

“The economics of downloadable security are challenging,” he said. “At this point the cost to a television set for a CableCard slot is a couple of bucks. To put the more complex technology into the television to do downloadable security will probably add more cost.”