Technology unveiled at the National Association of Broadcasters show threatens to make the TV repairman a thing of the past. UpdateTV is designed to fix problems on digital television (DTV) sets by delivering software patches and upgrades through the digital broadcast spectrum.
Digital TVs are more akin to personal computers than to the analog sets of the past, and they sometimes require updates to their operating system, device drivers or application software. For example, some 400,000 Sony HDTV sets manufactured through last fall suffer from a software glitch that, after 1,100-1,200 hours of use, couldn’t be switched off. Viewers had to pull the plug to reset the TV, and a software update was necessary to solve the problem.
UpdateTV’s pitch is, instead of taking the costly step of sending a technician to a viewer’s home or mailing an update on a USB drive or flash memory card, set makers can update the TV remotely through the broadcast spectrum, with no user input required. There is a precedent for such a service; software updates are routinely sent to interactive digital cable set-tops from cable headends to fix problems or provide new functionality.
UpdateTV was developed by Hopkinton, Mass.-based Update Logic, a venture-backed firm formerly known as Broadcast Data Corp. The system is based on the Advanced Television Systems Committee’s (ATSC) A/97 standard, the Software Data Download Service, which defines specifications for downloading software to terminal devices using an MPEG-2 transport stream. Update­TV was demonstrated at the ATSC/NAB “DTV Hot Spot” in Las Vegas.
Update Logic aims to license the system to set manufacturers, which will install a small software client on their sets during manufacturing that will allow them to receive updates. In order to deliver the software fixes over-the-air, the company has secured a slice of DTV spectrum from roughly 200 PBS stations through National Datacast, a PBS subsidiary that aggregates spectrum for datacasting applications. The system is being tested at WGBH Boston, WFYI Indianapolis, KRMA Denver and KPBS San Diego.
'We’ll have 200 servers in 200 PBS stations and will be able to do it regionally as part of the whole rollout,” says Update Logic CEO Tripp Blair.
BIG SET MAKERS ON BOARD
The UpdateTV software will tell the DTV set to periodically tune to the appropriate PBS station in order to receive updates. Update Logic is already working with set manufacturers Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp and Sony to provide the service, and Blair expects to see the software integrated into sets for the 2007 model year.
Manufacturers are excited, if a bit wary, about the product. “I think it’s a good idea,” says Marty Zanfino, director of product development for Mitsubishi. “But you have to design a TV to do these updates, and you have to make sure this data comes through when it’s broadcast on cable and satellite, as well as terrestrial. That’s a big deal, as we estimate 80%-90% of our customers don’t have off-air antennas.”
Zanfino notes that guide companies like Gemstar-TV Guide have sparred with cable operators for years about delivering analog VBI (vertical-blanking-interval)-based data to consumers’ television sets, instead of stripping it out. Some of the difficulties arise from technical differences in local headend equipment, even if the operator has agreed to support guide data at the company-wide level.
TESTING WITH CABLE
Update Logic says it is working with cable operators Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Insight Communications to test its digital service. As long as the operators don’t strip the UpdateTV data stream out of the DTV feed of the PBS station they’re carrying, they don’t have to be an active participant in providing the service, says Blair.
Besides the data-stripping issue, the UpdateTV system would need to be modified if a cable operator changed its channel lineup and moved the PBS station to a new channel. “I hope they can work it out, as it would be of value to Mitsubishi and other digital-TV manufacturers,” says Zanfino.
Since UpdateTV could be used to update integrated digital-cable-ready sets (which will provide two-way functions like video-on-demand without requiring a set-top box), cable operators may actually have a vested interest in making sure the system works.
Patrick Forde, VP of new technology integration for Insight Communications, sits on Update Logic’s board of advisors. He recalls problems Insight had with the initial deployment of Cable­CARDs for one-way digital-cable- ready sets, as some 15%- 20% of customers receiving the cards called with a technical problem.
Forde believes that a solution like UpdateTV could eliminate such calls in the future. “There is an operational advantage to MSOs’ passing through this data,” says Forde. “Nine times out of 10, when there’s a problem with the TV set, the cable company is the one getting a phone call.”