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Motorola Set-Tops for the New U-verse Whole-Home DVR Service

It’s official. U-verse subscribers are reporting that AT&T has started to roll out its whole-home DVR service. Since Motorola is involved, I thought this would be a good time to walk through the hardware and AT&T’s approach to in-home DVR networking.

Motorola supplies two set-top models to AT&T for U-verse, the VIP1200, an HD IP box, and the VIP1216, an HD DVR set-top. In a multi-room DVR scenario, one VIP1216 can be used for shared digital video recording services around the home. In other words, the non-DVR set-tops can access DVR recordings and features (pause, rewind, etc.) from one central DVR. To interconnect the various VIP set tops, AT&T will use HomePNA (HPNA) technology which allows the establishment of an IP network using existing coax and phone lines.

The VIP1200 and the VIP1216 include a significant number of ports for both audio and video:

  • RCA/composite video – Standard Definition video connection to the TV or VCR
  • RCA/stereo left/right audio – Audio connection to the TV or VCR
  • S-Video – Standard Definition video connection to the TV
  • Component video, YPbPr – High Definition video connection to the TV
  • HDMI video – High Definition video and audio connection to the TV
  • Optical audio – Digital audio connection to Home Theater receiver (Dolby Digital surround sound)
  • USB interface – Connect to portable devices to transfer movies, photos and music.
  • Ethernet – TV programming input from your service operator, home networking
  • HPNA – TV programming input from your service operator, home networking

The VIP set-tops also support MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and VC-1 encoding. And they’re EnergyStar compliant for more efficient power use.

The whole-home DVR launch, which started showing signs of arrival in mid-Summer, follows on the heels of AT&T’s May news that it would begin to offer multiple HD streams to U-verse subscribers. I’m keeping a hopeful eye out on the U-verse Users Forum for more in-the-field reports.

Comcast to Introduce Bandwidth Cap on October 1st

Broadband Reports broke the news this morning that Comcast is implementing a 250GB monthly bandwidth cap starting October 1st. While as a consumer I’d love to stay cap-free, in all fairness to Comcast, 250 gigabytes is a pretty high ceiling, well above the range that most people need or could even hope to use right now. Karl Bode reports that it’s likely Comcast will charge $15 for every 10GB used above the 250GB cap.

A few quick thoughts:

  • It appears Comcast is going to be transparent about the capping process; something I appreciate very much.
  • More and more bandwidth-intensive applications are rolling into market. How will this affect consumer perspectives on broadband limitations?
  • Now that Comcast is moving forward, is any US cable operator likely to forego bandwidth caps from here on out?

Getting to IPv6

Ars Technica has posted some useful coverage in the last couple of weeks on IPv4 and IPv6. The gist of the news is that we’re running pretty darn low on IPv4 addresses, and IPv6 traffic on the Web is minimal at best.

I freely admit I don’t know all the ins and outs here, but I do know that implementing DOCSIS 3.0 means creating a lot more support for IPv6. Even though IPv6 isn’t one of the top reasons cable operators are moving forward on DOCSIS 3.0, it’s a nice bonus. Timely too.

The Making of a Demo Room

Motorola is recreating its customer demo room in the Horsham PA complex outside Philadelphia, and I’ve landed some photos of the construction work to date. Current plans for the room include a number of new live demos and even flexible space for temporary demos and “back-room” (i.e. non-public) showings. When complete it will house a lot of the technology typically only on display at trade shows, including next generation set-tops, TV on-demand and advanced advertising applications, voice modems and gateways, fiber-to-the-home equipment, and ultimately 4G wireless broadband gear. Best of all, several of the demos will get live updates as cable and telco operators roll out features like guide changes and interactive TV apps.

Below is a gallery of the new demo room in progress. (All photos taken between July and August) I’ll add updated pics and hopefully some video as the actual products arrive. I love a good demo room.

CDMA Still Delivers, and Push-to-Talk is Revived

Despite the fact that my wireless coverage on this blog has been entirely dedicated to WiMAX and LTE, there are other wireless technologies that deserve attention as well. Motorola launched its next generation push-to-talk (PTT) solution for CDMA networks today, and I had a chance to sit down with Motorola’s Jacqueline Majka, Senior Product Marketing Manager, to learn a little of the context around the announcement. Why CDMA? And what’s the big deal about push-to-talk? Here’s what I learned.

Why are people still talking about CDMA? Shouldn’t the focus be on WiMAX and LTE now?

WiMAX is underway and LTE is on the horizon, but at present CDMA networks still carry all the voice and data traffic and they will continue to be the dominate networks for years to come. We therefore need to take care of CDMA operators and the consumers who use CDMA mobile phones today. That means more than just maintaining service; it means continuing to innovate on 3G platforms. With the mobile broadband speeds available on 3G networks, carriers have an opportunity to launch new Internet-based applications and even revive older ones like the push-to-talk feature. Push-to-talk is an entirely different experience on a 3G network than it was on 2G.

Can you briefly explain what push-to-talk is?

At its most basic level, it is a feature that allows mobile phones to function like walkie-talkies. It’s a voice-over-IP application, which is why the underlying data network is so important for a quality push-to-talk experience.

The push-to-talk feature had success when it hit the market a few years back, but it’s always been a niche offering. Why do you think that will change?

Again, it’s all about the data network. On 2G networks there was a lot of latency with PTT. It could take five to seven seconds to connect, which entirely defeated the point of instant communications. On a 3G platform, such as a CDMA 1x EVDO Rev A network, that latency is down to around one second. It’s a lot more like other types of instant communications that people use regularly – instant messaging, texting, even newer services like Twitter.

What is Motorola’s role with PTT?

Motorola has been doing push-to-talk over cellular networks since 2004, not to mention the company’s decades of experience in two-way radio communications. Today we launched a next-generation PTT solution that’s optimized for CDMA EVDO Rev A networks and offers competitive connection times. We’ve also added access to a buddy list, making the experience more like instant messaging with voice for individuals and groups.

What kind of reaction do you think you’ll see from operators and consumers to the “new” push-to-talk offering?

Operators are already on board. Verizon Wireless, for example, just re-launched push-to-talk and clearly believes the feature and new PTT handsets will be appealing to consumers. We think the time is right for consumers too. Push-to-talk falls clearly in line with other consumer communication behaviors, and the underlying technology is solid. I think the reaction will be very positive.

Femtocell Research Updates

An article up at Unstrung this week (via Broadband Reports) quotes new research from Heavy Reading on commercial femtocell services. The HR study results jive with some of what I heard back in the spring on femtocell deployments, but not all. I’m curious about the results because they are not broken out by region, leaving me to wonder if they’re weighted toward one geographic area or another.

For example, Heavy Reading found that 54% of survey respondents plan to launch femtocell services in late 2009 or during 2010. That’s roughly the same timeline I’ve heard for North America, but it doesn’t square with predictions for Europe and Asia, where many trials are underway already this year.

Heavy Reading also listed improved voice coverage as the primary reason for operators looking to deploy femtocells. Again, that seems to jive with what I’ve heard about North America, where in-home cell phone service is hit or miss, but not with Asia. The Asian voice market looks to be saturated, but there is room for extended data services, particularly if they’re bundled with femtocell hardware.

Yahoo and Intel Preview the Widget Channel

Yahoo and Intel previewed their Widget Channel today, a “television application framework optimized for TV and related devices.” Essentially, the two companies are showing how to bring a wide range of new applications to TV via widgets, and they’re advocating for an open standard in order to fill out a “TV Widget ecosystem”. (Analysis up from ABI and NewTeeVee)

I’ve followed Yahoo’s next-gen TV efforts sporadically for a couple of years now, and I’ve heard about Intel’s work in integrating TV and the Internet as well. This announcement didn’t come as a huge surprise, but it’s nonetheless a pretty big milestone in the ongoing evolution of television. Widgets, which are deployed all over the Web, are still fairly rare in the living-room TV experience. While there are exceptions, most TV services do not come with Internet-based applications today, much less choose-your-own widgets.

Since Motorola executive Nick Chakalos was quoted in the Intel/Yahoo release, I thought I’d catch up with him for a few quick questions. Here’s what he had to say.

Can you explain how the Widget Channel works?

It’s very similar to widget services on the Web. The vision is that consumers would go to the Widget Channel to access a menu or gallery of applications designed to personalize the TV experience and make it more interactive. For example, users could pick widgets that would track sports stats or allow interaction among friends around television programming.

Motorola added a quote to the Intel/Yahoo release. What is Motorola’s involvement or interest in the widget initiative from Intel and Yahoo?

For Motorola, the value is in the goal of Intel and Yahoo to create an open standard for bringing interactive applications to the TV. We’ve been part of the evolution of TV technology for decades, so of course we’ve been examining how to integrate the power of the Internet with traditional television broadcasting. In ongoing discussions with both Intel and Yahoo, we’ve seen a lot of promise in the concept of widgetized TV. We also think that Motorola is very well positioned to bring this type of service to an operator environment, whether IPTV or cable, where integration with legacy or next-gen infrastructure such as OCAP/tru2way is a challenge we can address.

How do you see this initiative unfolding?

Operators are experimenting now with different ways to expand the TV experience, but it will definitely start in the retail channel on devices like Blu-ray Disc players, Internet-capable TVs, game consoles and set-tops. We’ll see it introduced in the cable and telco channels after technology, consumer adoption and business models are proven.