Cable Industry Begins to Launch Next-Generation Digital Services

LAS VEGAS -- A bit out of the limelight of the flashy product announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show here, key cable-industry figures have announced deployments of new technology that should speed up development of digital TV products such as DVRs and two-way digital cable-ready sets.

At a news conference held by CableLabs, a nonprofit research and development company backed by the cable industry, executives from some of the nation's largest cable operators--Cablevision, Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner--announced the first deployments and trials for the OCAP (Open Cable Applications Platform) middleware standard.

Cable-Box Applications

In the past, no real standards for developing applications for cable boxes and cable-ready sets existed. OCAP, which requires support from both the cable system and the consumer hardware, would presumably reduce development costs and spur deployments of applications such as interactive program guides, downloadable games, and digital video recorders, since developers wouldn't have to produce many different versions--the OCAP version would run on any OCAP-enabled system and product.

OCAP will also be the basis for the successor to today's CableCard technology, which lets TV makers dispense with digital cable boxes for receiving programming but does not support two-way functionality (such as interactive program guides and video on demand). In a release following the news conference, CableLabs said that several major electronics vendors, including LG Electronics, Panasonic, and Samsung, have signed the licensing agreement for the new technology, setting the stage for the development of two-way digital cable-ready HDTVs and other products.

Real-World Users

Several OCAP products are in the works. Samsung and Time Warner Cable say that they are already offering interactive TV services to customers of Time Warner's Gastonia, North Carolina, service who own Samsung's OCAP-compliant HDTVs. The services include Time Warner's OCAP Digital Navigator interactive program guide, the companies stated in a news release.

Panasonic, meanwhile, says it has reached an agreement to produce OCAP-compliant HDTV cable boxes with DVRs for Comcast. A Panasonic official said the boxes will be ready as soon as Comcast's head-ends are; privately the official said that he expected the boxes to begin shipping by the end of the year. Among other things, the new boxes will have at least 250GB of hard-disk space, twice the amount available on Comcast's current HDTV boxes with built-in DVRs.

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