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Cable TV Set-top Boxes

Telecommunications expert Annabel Dodd discusses the future of cable set-top boxes, including compression of TV signals, use for gaining Internet access and recording TV programs, and advanced digital security. You'll never look at your TV the same way again.

Cable TV set-top boxes are interfaces between televisions and the cable TV network for access to cable services. At the most basic level, they are tuners. Cable operators remotely administer filters and traps in the set-top boxes to allow subscribers access to basic cable TV or premium channels. The set-top box also has a security function. It scrambles and descrambles TV signals based on links to billing systems, which provide information on which channels to allow the subscriber to receive.

Advanced analog set-top boxes allow users to access the Internet independently of cable modems from their televisions. Moreover, new set-top boxes have program guides embedded in them. The advanced analog set-top boxes can also be used to turn on VCRs.

Third-generation digital set-top boxes are being developed to take advantage of the potential two-way capability of the cable TV plant. These capabilities include the following:

  • Advanced digital security, so that the security is placed on a card in the set-top box that can be installed separately. If a consumer buys a set-top box from a retailer, the cable TV provider can install the security feature on the card.

  • Advanced programming, with 30 days of programming information.

  • Embedded modems that will enable televisions to be used as computers for Internet access. For example, someone watching a football game will be able to view statistics from the Internet in a window of the television. The set-top box will also include infrared links to keyboards and computer mouse devices.

  • Compression, so that 6 to 12 compressed digital TV signals can be carried in the same amount of frequency as 1 TV signal without the digital compression.

  • Computer operating systems, software, and possibly a hard disc for programming guides and potential new services, such as picture-in-picture for viewing statistics while watching sports programs.

  • A combination of satellite TV viewing, Internet browsing, and VCR-like recording.

  • Internet and email capability, so that users can chat online and send email and instant messaging while they watch TV.

  • An Ethernet plug on the back of the set-top box, so that computers or home routers can be connected to the set-top box.

  • Video-on-demand, so that callers will not have to place a separate telephone call to order a premium movie. The movie can be ordered from the set-top box.

  • Open platform standards, so that consumers can purchase set-top boxes from a variety of retailers and know that they will work with all cable systems.

In July 1998, the FCC mandated that set-top boxes be available for retail sale by July 2000. TiVo and Replay Networks both sell set-top boxes at retail outlets. A standard for security must be available by the year 2005. Consumers will still be able to rent or purchase set-top boxes from their cable providers. To that end, Cable Television Laboratories, Inc., known as CableLabs, is developing standards for set-top boxes. Cable Television Laboratories is the research and development consortium of the North and South American Cable TV industry.

TV set-top boxes have the potential to revolutionize how we use our TVs. They will allow us to bypass annoying television commercials and turn our televisions into two-way devices for Internet access. Their largest impact may be in areas of the world with low penetration of personal computers. The set-top box will bring Internet access to people without personal computers.

About the Author

Annabel Z. Dodd is the author of The Essential Guide to Telecommunications (July 1999, Prentice Hall), a best-selling nontechnical guide to the industry. She is an adjunct professor at both Northeastern University's state-of-the-art program and State University of New York's Master of Science in the Technology Management Program. The Massachusetts Telecommunications Council recently awarded her the Telecom Professor of the year for 2000.

Formerly in marketing at Bell Atlantic and Telecommunications Manager at Dennison Manufacturing Company (Avery Dennison), she has consulted with major corporations and institutions in the greater Boston area for more than a decade. She is a popular speaker on telecommunications issues and technology, and a frequent contributor to telecommunications journals. Annabel can be visited on the Web at www.doddontheline.com/.

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