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Operators To Miss Tru2way Deadline

Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications will not have tru2way interactive-services technology enabled across their entire footprints by July 1, as they had pledged in agreements with consumer-electronics companies last year.

But executives from two CE manufacturers, Samsung Electronics and Panasonic, said the biggest cable operators have made good-faith efforts to date on deploying the technology and they expect additional tru2way markets launched soon.

"I can't say I'm happy about the results -- we would have liked for things to happen more quickly -- but we have to be realistic about the complexity of this project," said Jeff Cove, Panasonic's vice president of strategic alliances, adding, "My sense is the cable companies are trying to meet the deadlines."

Added Stephen Goldstein, Samsung's director of business development and marketing, "This is difficult technology. It's not for lack of trying. It's executing and implementing these technologies, which have developed over the last 10 years. I think things are going as well as they could be with OCAP [the OpenCable Application Platform] and tru2way."

The tru2way specification, based on the Java programming language, lets cable operators deliver interactive TV applications and video programming to any compatible device, such as a set-top box or TV.

Five of the six biggest U.S. MSOs -- Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Cablevision Systems and Bright House Networks -- committed to the July 1, 2009, deadline in pacts with major consumer-electronics companies signed last summer, with the exception of Charter Communications, which had agreed to support tru2way by July 2010.  The deal effectively resolved cable's disagreement with CE companies about how operators will provide access to two-way cable services.

Cable executives said there was now a spirit of cooperation between the two industries, whereas in the past their negotiations have been confrontational.

"I'm pleased that we've reached a point where instead of firing bullets at each other, we've got our business and technical people talking to each other now instead of us lawyers," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association general counsel Neil Goldberg.

The agreements reached among the MSOs and CE companies don't include specific penalties for missing the deadline, according to Goldberg.

While Comcast won't make the July 1 deadline, "the primary thing that has happened is, we've moved from opposite sides of the table to the same side of the table with the CE companies," said Comcast senior vice president of strategic planning Mark Coblitz. "This was a private agreement, so it's businesspeople working with each other to get this done."

Coblitz said Comcast doesn't have an end date for when it will have 100% of its headends enabled for tru2way-based retail devices but said "it won't be in the too-distant future."

Time Warner Cable also will miss the deadline "but we've told our partners we're committed to tru2way, and we're close to trials," spokesman Alex Dudley said. He noted that TWC has already deployed more than 2 million tru2way-based boxes in the field.

Executives from Comcast and Time Warner Cable, speaking in January on a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show, had expected to be ready with tru2way support by the July 1 date.

For its part, Cox said in a statement: "We are currently undergoing readiness testing in all of our locations. Cox will provide support for tru2way devices comparable to leased set-top box customers and will also begin purchasing tru2way compatible STBs by the July 1 deadline. We are working closely with consumer electronics manufacturers to enable full tru2way functionality on our cable platform with the hope of full-readiness by the end of the year."

Cablevision and Bright House representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which has continuously lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to implement rules requiring cable to open access to retail devices, declined to comment on the tru2way deadline. CEA "did not sign on to this agreement and therefore we don't want to offer a comment," said spokeswoman Meghan Henning.

Sony Electronics, which until May 2008 had been a notable holdout in refusing to use the cable industry's technology, also declined to comment.

Panasonic was the first to market tru2way-based HDTVs, having launched in three Comcast markets: Chicago, Denver and Atlanta. 

Cove said Panasonic intends to launch tru2way-based products in more markets and with more MSOs, "but we're kind of doing it carefully." The manufacturer also will expand its lineup of tru2way devices, beyond the 42- and 50-inch plasma-screen HDTVs it has been selling.

Samsung has sold tru2way-based set-tops to Time Warner Cable and Bright House, and has agreements to deploy them in the field with Comcast, according to Goldstein.

"It's been a favorable experience in light of what is a pretty fundamental addition to their digital video infrastructure," he said, pointing out that the transition requires changes to operators' interactive program guides and headend software.

CableLabs has tried to push the tru2way "ecosystem" forward in various ways. This month it released a reference implementation of the tru2way code base, available under open-source or commercial licenses for no fee.

The consortium also held an interactive TV interoperability event May 4-9, with 22 software and hardware vendors, programmers and operators. The lab sessions included more than 35 applications, written to CableLabs' tru2way and Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) specifications, running across multiple headends, user agents and set-top boxes. CableLabs is planning its next tru2way interoperability event in the fall of 2009.

Both retail CE companies as well as suppliers to the cable industry have signed tru2way agreements, including: ADB, Alticast, AMD, Broadcom, Cisco Systems, Digeo, EchoStar, Funai Electric, Intel, LG Electronics, Pace, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Texas Instruments, Thomson and Toshiba.