Comcast: New Way on Tru2way

Comcast is gearing up
to test its next major set-top box
platform before the end of 2010
— and it’s not being built by either
Motorola or Cisco Systems.

Instead, the largest U.S. operator
looked beyond the so-called
cable technology “duopoly,”
awarding the contract to Pace,
a set-top manufacturer based in
the United Kingdom, according
to two industry executives familiar
with the project.

The Pace box will use the Intel
Media Processor CE 3100,
the system-on-a-chip previously
code-named Kenmore,
the sources said, representing a
major win for Intel’s ambitions
in the cable space.

Comcast and Pace declined
to comment. Intel has previously
announced that it is working
with Comcast on set-top projects,
spokeswoman Mary Ninow
noted, but otherwise the chip giant
declined to comment.

One of the losers would appear
to be Motorola, which historically
has been Comcast’s
primary supplier of set-tops and
related technology. Over the last
two years, Comcast has worked
more closely with Pace, which
has provided low-cost digital
terminal adapters. The DTAs are
a key piece of the MSO’s Project
Cavalry initiative to reclaim analog-
video bandwidth.

“Comcast turned mostly outside
Motorola for the DTAs, and
Pace has been aggressive on
price,” said SNL Kagan analyst
Ian Olgeirson. “Any weakening
of Motorola’s relationship with
Comcast would certainly pose a
serious issue for Motorola.” Olgeirson
said he did not have direct
knowledge of the Comcast set-top
project with Pace and Intel.

The move also highlights Comcast’s
embrace of Tru2way for its
own set-tops. Tru2way is the cable
industry’s full-featured interactive
TV platform, and is more
powerful (and demanding) than
the lightweight Enhanced TV Binary
Interchange Format spec. Another
goal for Tru2way is to give MSOs
greater independence in selecting
their set-top hardware providers.

The new Comcast set-top will
run the operator’s “Buckeye” Tru2way-based guide optimized for
16 x 9 HDTVs on the CableLabs
open-source OpenCable Application
Platform (OCAP) reference
implementation software stack.
Tru2way is the consumer brand
name for the OCAP specification.

CableLabs last year released
the source code — available under
a royalty-free, open-source
license — for the “canonical”
OCAP reference implementation,
which is based on software
from OCAP Development LLC,
a joint venture of Comcast and
Time Warner Cable. That software
was developed by Vidiom
Systems under contract with
OCAP Development LLC.

The OCAP implementation
for the Pace set-top is being handled
by VividLogic, now part of
SeaChange International.

In addition to the new software,
the Pace-manufactured
box with the Intel chip will have
considerably more horsepower than Comcast’s current-generation
set-tops. The CE 3100
system-on-a-chip includes an
800-MHz Intel Pentium M processor
as well as dedicated hardware
decoders that support
two HD 1080i video streams
in MPEG-2, MPEG-4 H.264 or
VC-1 formats.

Pace’s stepped-up profile at
Comcast comes as the company
became the largest set-top box provider
worldwide in 2009, with 7% of
the market, according to research
firm IMS Research. That pushed
Pace past Motorola and Technicolor
SA, which had been No. 1 and 2,
respectively, the year earlier.

Pace shipped 17.2 million set-tops
to more than 100 pay-TV operators
in 2009, according to the
company. It acquired the set-top
box and connectivity solutions
business of Royal Philips Electronics
in April 2008.

Comcast is among Pace’s 60
customers in North America. Internationally,
Pace customers include
BT, UPC Broadband, Sky
Mexico and DirecTV PanAmericana.
The company, based in
Saltaire, West Yorkshire (U.K.),
has more than 1,000 employees