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Did Cable Miss the VoIP Boat With OCAP?

News Analysis By Robert Liu


As my distinguished colleague Hunter Newby notes in his commentary this month, the cable industry is obviously taking VoIP Peering seriously by issuing its Request for Information to learn more about standards and deployment options. But how much is the cable industry really embracing voice ... or Internet Protocol for that matter?

Consider the announcement in January from industry consortium CableLabs. At a press conference at the International Consumer Electronics Show gala, the industrys top honchos banded together to throw their hefty weight behind OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), a Java-based middleware that CableLabs has been working on with the European-based Digital Video Broadcast (DVB) group since 2001. Executives like Glenn Britt of Time Warner Cable and Brian Roberts of Comcast plan to deploy the middleware later this year into head-ends of their cable systems in a handful of markets, giving software developers the ability to write applications for cable systems for the first time.

The goal isnt just to unify disparate systems but also simplify them by bringing together various functions onto the same platform. That could result in the elimination of the need for a separate set-top box or the evolution of a truly universal remote control, Theres a fight in the consumers mind as to whose operating system is running it, Roberts explained at an investors conference a few days after CES.

But in its current form, OCAP still lacks the capabilities to unify voice with data and video services despite the bundling efforts of the cable multi-system operators (MSO). And that could represent an opportunity for IPTV providers to gain a small foothold in the ever-changing bundles known as Triple- or Quadruple-play services.

OCAP is based on DVBs Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) specification and runs in the Java 2, Micro Edition (J2ME) environment. In order for developers to port over their pre-existing Java-based applications onto OCAP, applications need to be re-engineered slightly with an Xlet think, Java applet so that it can work on the OCAP stack and the platform has the ability to manage the application.

As such, industry officials believe the cable industrys endorsement of OCAP represents a significant win for the entire Java development community. Following that logic, it also is a big loss for Microsoft ASP or .NET developers, who had been making inroads pushing Windows out to the IPTV community.

That seems to be the way its playing out in the cable field, said Dilshan De Silva, Director of Marketing, Browser Business at Espial, a Canadian developer of IPTV solutions. In fact, companies like Espial, which has come up with a browser software developer kit built for embedded designs, could benefit by porting its application over to the OCAP platform to support Internet TV services.

OCAP is brought up occasionally as a possible middleware standard for the IPTV community as well. But Telco operators and service providers have not made the same commitment to the MHP standard as the U.S. cable industry has. The area were interested in is OCAP being brought up in the IPTV space, De Silva said

Its a little too early to tell [about OCAPs viability]. Youre not seeing the same level of adoption as youre seeing with the cable industry. In IPTV, theres more proprietary middleware, he explained.

The cable industrys goal with OCAP is to come up with applications (like voting/polling, eBay-like e-commerce services, online bill payment, caller ID on TV, etc.) intended to add to the stickiness of the video product. But while the OCAP-based application can operate independently of the networking protocols used to carry it, it is still not going to replace voice-over-IP as a conduit into the home at least not in its current form.

Thats because, while Sun Microsystems the keeper of all things Holy in the Java realm has clearly outlined telephony call controls, none of the Java Telephony API (JTAPI) is included in OCAP/MHP. The Quality of Service mechanism still relies on the PacketCable Multimedia Terminal Adapter, according to Don Dulchinos, senior vice president of advanced platforms at CableLabs.

Youll still need an IP channel, De Silva continued.

So much for bundled subscriber services.

That means cable operators will still need to provide bundled services through two devices, the TV (or set-top box) and the modem. And, even though Microsoft now faces more of an uphill battle getting its runtime environment ported onto cable systems due to wide-scale Java deployment, its developer base has still made more progress bundling voice and data with video, opening the door for IPTV.

To be sure, Dulchinos said CableLabs is still working out the kinks with OCAP. Voice (as well as a number of other features like HTML-support) is clearly under consideration. It hasnt been written out yet. Its on our roadmap for 06, the CableLabs official said.

They are trying to get the interactive services out faster than the Telco operators do. It will be a bit of a race, observed De Silva. IT

Roberts 15-year communications career spans from the print world to television and to the Internet. He has covered business and technology writing for Dow Jones, Bloomberg Business News, CNN, and Jupitermedias He has served as a producer at CNN, Headline News and A&E Television Networks. You may contact Robert at [email protected].

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