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Motorola to Demo Set-Tops With Antennas

Digital rabbit ears will be popping up in Las Vegas next week, when Motorola will provide a first look at a technology that may give cable operators technical leverage in contentious carriage negotiations with broadcasters.

The equipment vendor plans to demonstrate two set-top box prototypes that provide antennas for receiving the over-the-air transmission of digital signals from local broadcast-TV stations. Broadcasters must transmit all their programming digitally after Feb. 17, 2009.

Motorola's demonstrations will come at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's Cable Show in Las Vegas, which starts May 7.

The devices represent early implementations of a CableLabs specification, currently in development, that would allow set-tops to switch between over-the-air signals received in digital form and cable channels, also in digits. The final standards have not been set.

In a description of the demo Motorola sent to Multichannel News, the company said the devices will combine “digital cable set-top signal reception with off-air tuning capabilities, such that cable network carriage of local broadcast channels is unnecessary.”

Such off-air tuners could give operators a major bargaining chip in retransmission agreements with broadcasters.

“I think that is a vitally important piece of technology development, particularly when you read what's happening in retrans these days” with local station owners demanding fees from cable for carriage rights, American Cable Association CEO Matt Polka said in an interview last month.

At The Cable Show, Motorola will demonstrate two single-tuner configurations: one with the off-air tuner and demodulator built into the set-top box; and the other with the antenna incorporated into a Universal Serial Bus stick that plugs into the set-top.

The boxes work by reading channel-identification information contained in Program and System Information Protocol data, which is sent along with digital-TV broadcasts according to standards set by the Advanced Television Systems Committee. The Motorola set-tops preempt “normal” cable tuning and invoke off-air channel reception for local channels identified, according to Motorola. The set-tops discover local channels available to a viewer via an off-air channel scan during installation.

Switching between cable and off-air channels “is expected to be seamless and to maintain channel-guide integrity,” Motorola said in its description of the demo.

Future developments, Motorola said, will include off-air tuning of two channels at the same time, which would provide picture-in-picture and the ability to watch one channel while recording another. There also will be “smart” antenna control to enhance picture quality.

Aside from the blurb describing the demo, Motorola declined to comment.

The prototypes will be demonstrated as part of CableNET '07, the showcase for upcoming technologies and services organized by CableLabs at the NCTA show.