Monday, February 7, 2011

Connected television – without the Set-top box? Better believe it!

Finally I think we can see cable channels without an intervening device i..e a set-top box. This is the debut and a small fist step in the direction of truly converged services at home.


The debut of “the cable app,” by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, on “smart TVs” made by Samsung and Sony. First of all, what’s “smart” about a “smart TV” is the same thing that made phones “smart phones” last year: an Internet connection.

For cable, it means this: The consumer buys a smart TV. He/She brings it home, hangs it on the wall and hooks up the Internet connection. (Warning: When you try this at home, have that crazy-long, un-memorizable Wi-Fi password handy.)

Then, voila: Apps start popping up. Netflix comes to mind. But, next to the Netflix icon, there’s perhaps an “Xfinity” logo, for Comcast customers, or the Time Warner Cable icon, for its customers.

So far, none of the manufacturers are accepting a premium to put one company’s icon higher in the queue. So far, it’s by popularity - whichever app is used the most is highest on the list. We’re taking bets on how fast that changes.

How does it work, technically? Let’s start easy. Let’s say the consumer lives in Comcast territory and is already a broadband and video customer. In the past, and in a huge oversimplification, streaming live video meant getting an encrypted stream to the set-top box.

Now, getting a live stream to a “connected” or “smart” TV means sending an HTTP stream, wrapped in digital rights management, “from the cloud” (translation: from a server in the network). That stream moves over Internet protocol through the cable-modem termination system, through the cable modem, through the Wi-Fi router, to the TV.

Then, to move that stream around to other TVs and screens in the home, two other components come into play. One is DLNA with DTCP-IP, a form of link-layer protection that keeps the signal encrypted as it moves around the home.

The other is HTML 5, to render the user interface on the other screens in the home. So, no set-top, no CableCard, no OCAP. Just cable, going into television sets, without all the rest of it. Sounds like a cable-ready connected-TV, and a way to get the services people are already paying for onto their other screens - without the Federal Communications Commission’s “help”.

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