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Cable Love-Hate for Set Top Box Investment

According to ABI Research, faced with stiff competition in the cable market and from telcos vying for TV viewers, traditionally risk-averse cable operators are now bipolar -- supporting a road-map that requires deployment of new advanced Set-Top Boxes (STB), while also apparently aiming to drive the ubiquitous STB to extinction.

Meanwhile, STB vendors are offering a variety of new features to entice operators. When it comes to STBs, operators have traditionally tread carefully, and have largely been unwilling to shop around much for new technologies.

ABI Research analyst Paulhwa Lee says, "Because some operators are facing stiffer competition, they are now willing to experiment a little more, venturing into offerings such as Electronic Program Guides, wireless support, home networking support for MOCA or HomePlug, and expanded hard drives -- all at increasingly affordable prices."

There is also a growing trend toward partnerships and consolidation. For example, STB giant Motorola has acquired a Chinese STB vendor, Dahua Digital; decoder manufacturer Broadcom has partnered with Chinese STB vendor Coship; and decoder manufacturer NXP has acquired Conexant's STB operations.

Some operators, too, are partnering with new STB manufacturers. This is because as the United States market matures, subscriber growth slows and evolves towards STB replacement.

STB sales may still be driven by one-off developments such as the CableCARD mandate, the digital to analog transition, and the unification of data and video. But cable TV operators know that these transitions are CAPEX-intensive.

At every opportunity, operators are trying to standardize and commoditize STBs by formulating standards and consortia such as tru2way and CableLabs, so many STB manufacturers are looking to fresh markets in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Meanwhile, consumers are eager for someone to design a remote control that overcomes the current usability challenges of the typical 30-50 tiny button devices.

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