Opening the POD Door
Cable-Compatible TV, at Last!
By Cliff Roth
It's been over 20 years since the first "cable-ready" TV sets and VCRs hit the market. But as any installer can tell you, a funny thing happened on the way to cable compatibility. The signals got scrambled.
While it was true that a "cable-compatible" TV set could use its built-in cable tuner to view all the unscrambled basic channels, the same technology was essentially useless for all the premium channels, such as HBO and Showtime. With the advent of digital cable service, the "cable-ready" tuner became even more useless. And in some cable TV markets, such as New York City, even "basic" channels like CNN, ESPN and Lifetime get scrambled, making the cable-ready tuner completely useless, except for broadcast TV channels.
Fast-forward to 2003, and all this is about to improve, thanks to a recent agreement between consumer electronics manufacturers and the cable TV industry. Last December, their respective Washington lobbying organizations, the EIA (Electronics Industries Association) and NCTA (National Cable and Telecommunications Association), helped forge a pioneering agreement, commonly referred to as the "POD agreement." If you build home theater systems and your customers haven't been asking about "POD" yet, rest assured they will be soon.
WHAT'S A POD?
POD stands for "point of deployment," but a better name might be "independent conditional access module," or simply, "Plug and Play." What POD does is free the consumer electronics TV devices — TVs, VCRs, PVRs, etc. — from the need to first "decode" the cable TV signal in a cable TV set-top box. POD puts the conditional access — the descrambling of the "premium" TV signal — right into the TV set, VCR, PVR or other video device.
Purchasers of high-end sets, and in particular HDTVs, will benefit the most from POD, because these TVs have advanced features like PIP that, until now, have been hamstrung when hooked up to cable TV — especially digital cable TV.
HDTV sets will now be assured of direct access to the digital cable signal, too, without regard to what type of HD connections the local cable TV system offers on their set-top boxes. Those connections are part of a separate agreement that is also being worked out between the two industries. The connection will most likely be a security-enhanced version of the "raw" (uncompressed) DVI — digital visual interface. This is good for displaying "live" on a TV screen, but bad for recording. The DVI connection is relevant if you decide to use a cable box — but with a POD TV, you don't need a cable box.
By way of analogy, cable TV today is a bit like the old Ma Bell phone system of the 1960s, before customers were allowed to hook up their own phones and accessories. (Remember the "acoustic coupler"?) With today's digital cable TV, the only thing you can hook up is the "official" set-top box issued by the cable company. All sorts of clever schemes — such as the IR blasters used by TiVo and Replay — have been concocted to allow automated selection of cable channels. But these techniques have been cumbersome. POD promises to change all that, essentially allowing the consumer — or custom installer — to hook up all sorts of equipment directly to the cable TV feed.
The cable TV industry dragged its heels to this POD agreement. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act required the cable TV industry to develop a standard for retail set-top boxes (so that consumers could buy their own boxes), and to work out a solution with the consumer electronics industry that would allow advanced features — like PIP — to work properly. In 1998, the FCC ordered a POD agreement by 2000. It is true that CableLabs, the cable TV industry consortium charged with creating these new standards, has mostly met the government timetables for creating the standards. The problem has been getting the cable TV industry to actually deploy them, and make the POD modules available. That time appears to be at hand.
PIP AND OTHER PROBLEMS
With PIP, you should be able to watch any two TV programs at the same time; so that, for example, you could watch one channel while surfing the dial to see what else is on. But in practice, most people are stuck setting up PIP to work only with programs from different sources — such as one image from cable TV, and the other from a DVD or videocassette. Some installers will attempt to create a semblance of proper PIP by feeding the raw cable, with unscrambled basic analog channels only, into the second TV input. But at present, the only way to have true PIP — with all channels on both tuners — is to pay for two cable TV boxes. And even then, there are major complications arising from the fact that both cable TV boxes use the same remote control infrared signals. Without going to extraordinary measures to isolate the two cable boxes, a command from one remote control will trigger both boxes.
Then there's the problem of trying to make a recording when you're not home, either with a VCR or PVR such as TiVo or Replay. The best solution here has been the IR blaster that hangs in front of the cable box and mimics the commands of the remote control to change channels automatically. But it too has problems — if it gets dislocated, or if the cable box's power is turned off (which can happen randomly, whenever the cable company wants to reboot all the boxes), the system fails and the recording won't come out.
POD TO THE RESCUE
If POD becomes reality, as now appears likely, these problems will go away. You'll be able to plug the cable TV wire directly into the back of a TV set, without the cable box. The TV set's PIP function will work the way it was intended — watch any two cable TV channels, simultaneously. (Any two that are being paid for, that is!)
Judging by what the first prototypes shown at January's Consumer Electronics Show looked like, the POD module is much like a standard PC Card (a.k.a., PCMCIA) — the kind that plugs into laptop computers. What this card does is provide conditional access — it lets customers see the channels they are paying for (subscribed to), while blocking out channels that haven't been purchased.
As you can imagine, conditional access is a very sensitive area of the cable TV business. Literally billions of dollars, annually, hinge on the security of the system. No wonder cable companies have been leery. Over on the satellite side of the business — which the POD agreement does not cover — smart card security breaches have been rampant, with charges of high-level sabotage to undermine competitor's conditional access systems.
To maintain control, each cable TV system will distribute its own POD cards. Thus, when someone with a POD-equipped TV moves from New York to Philadelphia, the old POD card should get returned to the cable TV company in New York, and a new POD card must be obtained from the Philadelphia cable TV company. Fees for the POD cards will probably vary by cable system.
Note that the POD card does not by itself unlock anything — if a consumer fails to return a POD card, it will not offer free access to cable TV, any more than a modern cable TV box can offer free access. From its central "headend," the cable company can de-activate the box, and likewise with the POD card. That's what conditional access is all about.
The POD-equipped TVs will feature three types of tuning — NTSC for traditional analog TV, ATSC for over-the-air HDTV (DTV) and QAM for cable TV. Fortunately, though different RF modulation is used for HDTV/DTV and digital cable, they use similar MPEG data compression, thus allowing the tuners to share some resources.
A ONE-WAY STREET
The POD agreement, as worked out thus far, is strictly a one-way affair, covering TV signals moving from the cable system to the home. Not covered is the reverse — signals going from home to cable headend. Which means that POD-equipped TVs will have one big drawback compared with using a set-top box: You can't order pay-per-view or video-on-demand movies. Those services require sending commands in the opposite direction.
The two industries are still talking, and there's hope that they'll also work out this aspect over time. But custom installers looking to take advantage of POD TVs as soon as they become available should
probably design systems offering both capabilities — a direct POD connection as well as a cable-box connection.
Meanwhile, the electronics industry is in the process of getting the FCC to codify the agreement into law, so that cable TV companies — even the ones that weren't covered by the initial agreement — are
legally required to supply the POD modules on demand.
"Plug and play will be good for the future of these industries, good for the digital transition, and most importantly, good for consumers," says FCC Chairman Michael Powell. But the rulemaking "will probably take between six to eight months," Powell said at an appearance at CES in January.
Meanwhile, Panasonic says they'll have their first POD TVs available in time for Christmas.
Cliff Roth is director of interactive television for Gist, an electronic program guide (EPG) service, and author of The Low Budget Video Bible.