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Set-tops get into the action

Manufacturers at this week's Western Show in Anaheim, Calif., will be pushing digital set-top boxes that do more than just receive digital channels. The next-generation boxes also enable new services: video-on-demand (VOD), high definition television (HDTV) and personal video recording (PVR).

The vendors market their products in three basic categories: thin-client models for operators seeking an economical solution to interactive services; thick-client boxes for those that want to offer more features; and multifunction boxes, which could include audio/video receivers, cable modems and CD/DVD players. These last boxes would be sold to consumers in stores.

Motorola's Broadband division has expanded its DCT2000 platform with the introduction of the DCT2500 and DCT2600 thin-client models, which deliver interactive services and PVR capabilities.

According to Bernadette Vernon, director of strategic marketing for Motorola's DigiCable division, the DCT2500 offers all of the DCT2000's features but adds more processing power, improved graphics, scaled video, and data extraction for text and other information services. The DCT2600 includes a hard disk for PVR.

Motorola will also show its advanced DCT5000 platform (which now includes the DCT5100, DCT5200 and DCT52X0), introduced at the NCTA show in May. It has more processing power, an internal cable modem, HDTV and PVR functionality, Vernon said, and this thick-client model will be ready to ship in the first quarter next year.

In addition to a series of software applications that run on the DCT platform, Motorola will exhibit the Digital Convergence Platform (DCP), a "home theater" box that incorporates a DCT2000 set-top box, an A/V receiver, a CD/DVD player, and 100-watt-per-channel audio. It will be sold in stores (no price yet) and to MSOs that might want to resell to subscribers. It will be available by the first quarter.

At Scientific-Atlanta, thin-client set-tops with electronic program guides and VOD capability are the hot new items, noted Dave Davies, director of strategic marketing for the company's Subscriber Networks division. Cable operators will roll out the more advanced-featured boxes in 2003, he said.

"I can't think of a single MSO that is not going to introduce some type of VOD service next year," Davies said. "We think that on-demand services and PVR are going to be great revenue-generating features that offer MSOs a powerful tool to use against" rivals.

Having shipped more than 9 million digital boxes worldwide thus far, S-A recently announced that Time Warner Cable has committed to purchase 625,000 of its Explorer digital set-tops for VOD, subscription video-on-demand (SVOD), PVR and HDTV.

TWC is planning to test a number of new services across the country. The order includes 100,000 of S-A's new Explorer 8000 set-tops with PVR functionality; 50,000 Explorer 3100HDs, capable of decoding all 18 ATSC HD digital formats as well as standard-definition digital and analog video; and 475,000 Explorer 2100 digital set-tops, which enable VOD, SVOD, e-mail, Web browsing, chat and e-commerce.

"We've been pleasantly surprised this year by the interest in HDTV," Davies said. "Broadcasters should take notice that the cable industry is planning to offer HDTV in a big way in the very near future."

At the show, S-A will also demonstrate a suite of interactive applications, developed by the company's software-development group, that run on video-server systems from companies like SeaChange, NCube, Concurrent and Diva. These applications can be simple games or on-demand weather and sports information, which many operators have begun rolling out to whet subscribers' appetites for interactive TV.

Pace Micro Technology Americas is the newest entry into the U.S. cable market, although, according to a company rep, it is the third-largest box supplier worldwide, with more than 900,000 shipped in first quarter 2001 alone. It will exhibit the 500 series box, an advanced digital box currently being shipped in large quantity to Comcast, TWC and others. The 500 integrates the Broadcom BCM 7100, S-A's PowerKEY conditional access and the Power TV operating system on a single silicon chip, making the box one of the smallest on the market.

According to Pace, the 500 supports a number of interactive electronic program guides, including its new Pace Enhanced TV Resident Application.

The company will also demonstrate its 700 series digital home gateway, which has an HDTV option and is being developed for Comcast Cable, and a new set-top box with fully integrated PVR (including a dual tuner and hard disk with 40-GB capacity, or 20 hours of recording time) that is currently in use by British Sky Broadcasting's Sky+ service in the UK.

Pioneer New Media Technologies shipped 250,000 of its Voyager 1100 and Voyager 1110 digital set-tops in the second quarter, 295,000 in the third quarter and 1.5 million overall in the U.S. It's showing a new gateway box that combines a DOCSIS modem, an internal router/firewall, and a wireless base station. It supports both wired and wireless connectivity to link multiple devices in the home, the company said.