National Show Exhibitors Pitch Home Market

Digital video recorders (DVRs) and home-networking technologies will top the agendas of technology companies at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association's (NCTA) national show, which kicks off April 4 in San Francisco. The potential revenue from the DVR marketplace alone is approximately $100 million a year, per industry estimates.

Consumer appeal is one reason Motorola, for example, has shifted part of its emphasis from set-top boxes to whole-home mobility, tying video, voice and data services closely together. “We want to give consumers anytime, anywhere access to any information across any network,” says Paul Alfieri, manager, public relations, for Motorola-connected home business. “It spans deep into broadband and wireless and will even involve electronics embedded in cars.”

At the show, Motorola will demonstrate how to move video from a cable headend to a cellular phone, along with new services like home and small-business monitoring. Customers can install cameras and sensors to detect problems such as flooding, then have alerts sent via video mail or text messages to cellphones. “It's really about bridging cellular with wireless,” says Alfieri.

Set-Top Evolution

Of course, set-top boxes are still on the agenda. Those with DVR capability will get the lion's share of attention from attendees. Alfieri says Motorola has shipped 1.1 million DVR-equipped set-top boxes so far, although it lags behind Scientific-Atlanta when it comes to DVR deployments. (Last quarter, Scientific-Atlanta shipped about 450,000 DVR set-tops for a total of 2.3 million to date.)

Dave Davies, Scientific-Atlanta VP of strategy and product marketing, subscriber networks, says the DVR is changing the way consumers watch TV and their level of satisfaction with the cable operator. Cable customers value the ability to easily record and save programs.

The technological capabilities of the boxes are rapidly evolving to enhance that satisfaction. Scientific-Atlanta will head to NCTA with DVRs outfitted with DVD burners and recorders that can share content with up to four other set-top boxes in a home. Davies says the multi-room capabilities use the existing coaxial cable wiring in a home to transport stored video to the client set-tops. Motorola has a similar multi-room networking feature.

The key is to make the interface simple. The DVD-burning functionality, coupled with a DVR set-top box, quickly moves cable set-top box manufacturers into the Media Center PC market. “It feels a lot like a PC and bridges the boundary of the consumer-electronics space,” says Davies. Viewers will be able to build DVD libraries, giving them “the level of control they want.”

But when it comes to Media Center PC-like devices, no company on the NCTA show floor will be better represented than Digeo. Manufacturer of the Moxi Media Center, Digeo believes 2005 will be to Media Center PCs what 2004 was to the DVR.

Digeo's multi-TV proposition centers on functionality and price. The Moxi Mate, which connects secondary sets to the main Digeo box, costs $79 each, much less than additional Motorola or Scientific-Atlanta digital set-top boxes, which are typically around $180—a big advantage for Digeo, according to COO Bert Kolde.

Even with the proper hardware and software in place, there is one more potential stumbling block: the user interface. “Basically, it comes down to convenience,” says Mark Pascarella, president of Gotuit Media. “If the viewer can't easily find what they want on cable, they'll turn to another source.”

Gotuit heads to NCTA with a product lineup Pascarella believes meets those needs. “It's a new way to view video content,” he says. “It gives instant access to the content, which translates to increased viewing efficiency. Viewers spend less time slogging through content.”

Bandwidth Challenge

One challenge all vendors will address is bandwidth efficiency, particularly the need to pack the video portion of services into less space. “Cable systems must operate transport networks with a quality of service that maximizes service availability [for subscribers], while using bandwidth as efficiently as possible,” says C-COR CTO Joe Matarese.

One option will be on display at C-COR's booth. The company's Policy Service Manager allows operators to control bandwidth use and service quality from the point where voice, video or data enters the transport network through the access network to the set-top box or cable modem. “For example, the transport and access network might be designed to handle Saturday-night peak bandwidth demands associated with VOD services,” says Matarese. “But those bandwidth resources might be reallocated to commercial data and VoIP services during the day or switched to broadcast video services during prime time on weeknights.”

In addition, Xtend Networks will offer technology that turns a typical 860-MHz cable plant into one with 3 GHz of capacity. The company will demo the cable industry's only telecom-quality T1-over-coaxial-cable solution, which can deliver up to 40 Mbps downstream and 30 Mbps upstream to every home—enough bandwidth to accommodate advanced TV, voice and data services.

“An advantage for cable is its ability to significantly add bandwidth to its existing plant, so operators can provide the capacity—both upstream and downstream—to meet or exceed [residential and commercial] customer expectations,” says Bill Keating, CEO of Xtend Networks.

Other companies also will be showing off their wares.

Microsoft's Foundation Edition (FE) guide will be at the NCTA show, but no future improvements will be made public until the CTAM conference held in Philadelphia at the end of July. In fact, Microsoft's presence on the NCTA show floor will be relegated to an executive suite; the company is focusing on the deployment of 5 million FE licenses for Comcast. The company will, however, be available to discuss IPTV-based services and its recent deal with Alcatel to provide a comprehensive IPTV system.

Pioneer is throwing all its efforts into upgrades to Passport Echo, which supports the Motorola 6412 dual-tuner DVR. Look for an auto-prompt that can extend recording times for live sporting events, Spanish-language support, and quick menus so operators can tie service offerings to remote keys, like the A, B or C item, in order to drive buy rates.

“As the demand for personalized services increases, the design and implementation of the guide and related applications becomes more and more important,” says Neil Jones, SVP, Pioneer Digital Technologies. “Additionally, alternative methods of getting to the content are being developed by PDT to meet those demands. To be most effective, traditional methods and alternative methods must be related and seamless to the user.”