PC/Cable TV Merge Is One Step Closer

Today's cable TV set-top boxes are proprietary and contain all of the computer smarts and security technology cable companies use to convert signals and prevent their content from being stolen. OpenCable provides for moving most of the digital process to the PC, while security resides on credit card-sized PC cards that plug in like keys.

With the cable TV platform standardized, you'll be able to take your cable box with you to another cable company's territory--and just plug in its PC card to get its service. Meanwhile, the much-touted "convergence" of PC, Web, and TV will be hastened and made more affordable by the cheap processing power of the PC, says Luc Vantalon, SCM's vice president of worldwide business development for digital TV.

"When you remove the security, then the set-top box becomes generic," Vantalon explains.

A Box Is a Box

With this merge, capabilities common to the PC--such as Web access, DVD playback, and hard drive storage--become part of your cable TV setup. Vantalon says that while you could use SCM's OpenCable broadband PC receiver in a home office, the primary use will be in "black boxes" next to TVs or in home entertainment systems.

"We want the PC to be in your living room," Vantalon says.

SCM demonstrated such a box from NetTV during the National Association of Broadcasters trade show this week.

One of the first benefits of PC-based cable systems will be time shifting--the ability to move back and forth within live broadcasts--which is already offered in products such as TiVo and ReplayTV. Pay-per-view and video-on-demand will also be offered, as will programs that combine broadcast TV with Web content, Vantalon says.

Other features will be similar to those offered on today's digital cable boxes and will include on-screen program guides, says Mike Schwartz, senior manager of communications for CableLabs, the nonprofit cable-TV consortium that performs OpenCable interoperability testing. OpenCable also will allow big cable companies such as Cox and Time Warner to offer retail products nationally, competing more directly against alternative technologies like direct digital satellite and fiber-optic phone systems.

Within several years, the enhanced bandwidth of OpenCable cable modems will be used to provide improved Internet telephony, Schwarz asserts. The technology also permits videoconferencing on TV sets and video recording without VCRs.

Vantalon and Schwartz say an FCC-imposed deadline of July 1 is driving much of the recent OpenCable development. Beta devices are expected by midyear, but consumer products aren't likely to appear before 2001, says Vantalon.

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David Essex

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