News

'DTAs’ Pop Out

5/24/2008 2:00 AM Eastern

While tech vendors and CableLabs hyped the future promise of Tru2way-enabled set-tops and services at The Cable Show, a less sexy — and much cheaper — concept captured a fair share of the attention last week.

Digital-to-analog converters promise to let a cable system eliminate the analog tier, while retaining basic subscribers who don’t want to upgrade to digital cable.

And the DTAs may be able to do that for half the cost (or less) of the least-expensive digital cable set-tops on the market (see “Analog Zappers,” May 12).

Both Cisco Systems and Motorola showed off prototype DTAs at The Cable Show, and U.K. set-top maker Pace Micro Technology has been privately demonstrating a simple converter to operators.

Thomson last week climbed into the DTA ring, showing off a simple box the company said will cost less than $40 to replicate an existing analog lineup.

And a smaller vendor, Evolution Digital, has already landed Massillon Cable TV in Ohio as its first customer for a low-cost digital-to-analog converter.

“There’s been a lot of buzz about the idea at the show,” said Dave Clark, director of product strategy and management for Cisco Systems’ Service Provider Video Technology Group (the former Scientific Atlanta).

Comcast, for one, wants to reclaim big chunks of analog spectrum using the devices.

Steve Burke, the MSO’s chief operating officer, said on a call last month with financial analysts that Comcast is targeting 20% of the footprint for conversion to all-digital using DTAs in the fourth quarter of 2008.

It’s “a very simple, inexpensive box that costs less than half of what our low-end boxes have traditionally cost,” Burke said.

Motorola has said it expects to have a DTA device available in the fourth quarter. Clark said Cisco has received no orders for its DTA yet, although he got a lot of questions from operators.

“One CFO asked me if you could do [a digital-to-analog cable box] for under $20,” Clark said. “I said, 'I don’t think anyone can do that.’ ”

Comcast also showed off a digital-to-analog device for multiple-dwelling units, which uses a specialized chip from BroadLogic Network Technologies to convert up to 80 digital MPEG-2 channels into analog format. Cisco is an investor in BroadLogic, as are Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Thomson’s DCI 1011, meanwhile, is scheduled for mass production in September, said Tom Newberry, director of North America cable set-top box product development.

NO ADVANCED FEATURES

The device, to cost less than $40, doesn’t include support for conditional access or any other advanced digital cable services, like video-on-demand or interactive program guides. The DCI 1011 does have an infrared port for remote-control operation, and uses the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) 65 standard to transmit channel call letters from the headend.

Pace, which has made headway as a third set-top supplier against Motorola and Cisco, has produced a small DTA that Comcast is currently playing with in its labs, according to an industry executive who has laid eyes on it.

PALM-SIZED DEVICE

“Pace has a little black device, as big as the palm of your hand, with a small LED to show the channel number,” the executive said, who added that the small size of the adapter may give it an edge at Comcast.

Pace declined to comment, and Comcast won’t say anything beyond Burke’s statements.

At least two conditional access vendors, Nagravision and Irdeto, have also submitted DTA proposals. Conexant supposedly was taking a run at the Comcast request for proposals too — before it sold its set-top chips business unit to NXP last month.

The executive who has seen the Pace DTA device noted, “Comcast has been very cautious about their expenses for this.”

No doubt: Comcast has told Wall Street it wants to cut overall capex for the year, to 18% of revenue compared with 20% in 2007.

September