What’s Behind the Microsoft/CableLabs CableCARD Agreement?

CableCARD Primer
So what is a CableCARD and why is it relevant? Simply stated, the CableCARD slips into some newer televisions and enables the TV to pick up digital cable service without the use of a set top box (STB). The current CableCARD standard only supports “one-way” services, so “two-way” services such as Video on Demand (VOD) and interactive program guides (IPG) are not supported. The industry remains months away from settling on two-way protocols.

Because of the Microsoft/CableLabs agreement, CableCARDs can now be used with appropriately equipped PC systems to enable consumers to view digital cable TV services on their home PC.

The Politics Behind the Agreement
The reason that it has taken so long for Microsoft and CableLabs to come to agreement is that the cable industry simply did not believe that Media Center PC’s were trustworthy when it came to protecting video content. The PC is a relatively open system, one which is easily “accessorized” by new peripherals and software. Once DVD’s Content Scrambling System was cracked, the entire cable industry became very nervous about opening up their content to manipulation by PCs.

Microsoft was told to come up with a software and hardware solution that would sufficiently protect video content against piracy and unauthorized duplication. But Microsoft was concerned that such a solution would make the consumer video viewing experience rather cumbersome and unfriendly, thus being antithetical to its larger goal of pushing consumers to view video on their PCs.

The Specifics of the Agreement
In an attempt to balance these two tensions, Microsoft came up with the Protected Video Path – Output Protection Management (PVP-OPM) and Protected Video Path – User-Accessible Bus (PVP-UAB), a solution designed to ensure that the system is compliant with CableLabs’ specifications and which encrypts video as it passes through the Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) bus. These new mechanisms are part of Vista, the next release of Windows.

A CableLabs’ compliant system must also use High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP) video outputs for connecting to the monitor. HDCP, and its cousin the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), are both digital video interfaces that can encrypt the video signal of protected content.

The Implications of This Announcement
While some consumers will enjoy having digital cable content available through their Media Center PC, others will be disappointed by the rest of the package.

First, in order to take advantage of high-definition programming, both older monitors and new Digital Video Interface (DVI) models will not work as they may have expected. When a protected High Definition Television (HDTV) program passes through the new Media Center PC, the PVP-OPM system will check to see if HDCP or HDMI is supported. If so, all is fine. If not, the video’s resolution is reduced from HDTV levels to something equivalent to ordinary DVD levels. So if you have an ordinary analog or DVI monitor, no matter how great its resolution, your HDTV channel will look much fuzzier than you expected. In the industry, this is sometimes called “down-rez’ing”.

Meantime, the classic STB continues to gain in sophistication, and it is capable of full two-way services now.

Second, there is no guarantee that the first-generation of CableCARD-enabled Media Center PCs will support two-way interactive video services such as VOD and EPGs. Of course, Microsoft hopes such an agreement will be in place by the time Vista comes out (just before the 2006 holiday season). If not, consumers may have to settle for one-way systems until upgrades are available.

Third, there is a “thorn” in two-way cable that may be giving Microsoft reason for concern. CableLabs has settled on something called the Open Cable Application Platform (OCAP) for supporting Java applets that can be downloaded into the host device. OCAP is based on a European specification called Multimedia Home Platform (MHP), and it was not developed by Microsoft.

As well, Microsoft is very busy working on Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), with the first major U.S. deployment by SBC scheduled for around January 2006. Microsoft’s IPTV vision runs somewhat in competition to CableLab’s OCAP. Therefore, it remains to be seen how completely Microsoft will support OCAP in a two-way CableCARD-capable Media Center PC.

The road to two-way CableCARD-enabled PCs is more complex than it may appear, clouded by not only Microsoft’s own long-term interests, but the interests of the cable companies as well. While it may be surprising to many readers, cable’s support for the CableCARD is only a stepping stone towards a grander vision. Ultimately, they hope the CableCARD will go away altogether, replaced with downloadable security, a move that will make things even more interesting.

Gary Sasaki
Specialty: Business Strategy for Digital Technologies
Gary Sasaki finds growth opportunities through a creative strategic look at markets, technologies and their value chain.

Topics include HDTV, digital cameras & video, codecs, digital recording media, AV networking standards, content creation and management, digital right management, media servers, distribution systems, telematics and mobility.

Prior experience includes 30 years with Hewlett Packard, including 10 years in HP Labs as a Strategic Business Development manager responsible for finding and helping to initiate new billion dollar businesses.  

About The Diffusion Group (TDG) –

The Diffusion Group is a strategic research and consulting firm focused on new media and digital home markets. Using a unique blend of research expertise, executive-level consultants, and hands-on technical experts, we create more than just research – we generate Intelligence in Action? . TDG is committed to providing market research and strategic consulting services based on conservative, real-world analysis and market forecasts grounded in consumer research.

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The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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