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Comcast Lights Up DTA Encryption

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) has confirmed that it's activated encryption in Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) devices serving customers in Portland, Ore., and Seattle -- the first Comcast markets to take the step since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted waivers to a handful of the simple channel zappers last year.

DTAs in those markets had been delivering digital programming in the clear. However, the Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) chips that power those devices are burned in with "privacy mode," a content protection system for video on demand (VoD); encryption for that mode can be activated via a firmware upgrade. (See Comcast's DTAs: Security Optional .)

MSO are allowed to take advantage of that option because of security waivers the FCC awarded last year, to DTAs from suppliers such as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Pace plc , Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453), Evolution Broadband LLC , and Nagravision SA . Short of such waivers, MSOs are banned from buying set-tops with integrated security under an FCC rule that took effect in July 2007. (See FCC Believes in Evolution-ary DTAs, Nagravision Joins DTA Waiver Parade, and FCC Approves DTAs From Moto, Cisco, Thomson & Pace.)

Late in 2009, Comcast began notifying Portland and Seattle customers that it was activating DTA encryption.

Comcast's relying heavily on the $35 DTA devices for Project Cavalry, an analog reclamation initiative that's clearing spectrum for gobs of high-definition television channels and speedier Docsis 3.0 services. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan .)

Activating encryption in those DTAs should offer relief to programmers in Comcast's expanded basic tier that are concerned about digital piracy. Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) has been the most vocal about it, suggesting last summer that it might consider withholding programming delivered to DTAs in the absence of some degree of content security. (See Cable Circles the DTA Wagons .)

Although encryption will offer a layer of protection to channels being delivered to DTAs, Comcast still delivers its B1 basic programming tier (about 30 channels, depending on the market) in analog, and free of encryption. Comcast would require yet another FCC waiver to encrypt B1. Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) obtained such a waiver last month for its New York systems. (See FCC Lets Cablevision Lock Up Its Basic TV Tier .)

'Cavalry' marches on
Comcast has remained aggressive with Project Cavalry in 2010, starting the "marination" process recently in two more markets: Minneapolis/St. Paul; and in Olathe, Independence, and other parts of Jackson County, Mo. In this preparatory phase, Comcast is installing digital boxes and DTAs during routine truck rolls before the markets go on the clock for the analog-to-digital channel migration. (See Comcast Seeds Digital Shift With Free Boxes.)

Comcast spokeswoman Alana Davis said Comcast has completed the all-digital Cavalry upgrade in four markets: Portland, Ore.; Seattle; the San Francisco Bay Area; and Augusta, Ga. The process is more than 75 percent complete in Comcast's Philadelphia region and in its Chattanooga, Tenn., system.

Other Comcast markets and regions where Project Cavalry is already underway include:

  • Atlanta
  • South Florida
  • Greater Boston region
  • Western New England
  • Greater Detroit region
  • Chicago
  • Portions of Maryland and Virginia
  • Michigan
  • Central Pennsylvania
  • Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pa.
  • Nashville, Tenn.
  • Indianapolis

Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts told an investor conference last month that the MSO had deployed more than 4.5 million DTAs so far. It's expected that Comcast will require more than 25 million of the devices to complete the project.

To this point, all of the DTAs Comcast has deployed are capable of only displaying standard-definition video. However, Broadcom and Zoran Corp. (Nasdaq: ZRAN) have both developed chipsets for low-cost ($50 or less) DTA models that can render high-definition video.

The FCC has not granted a security waiver to any HD-DTA models yet. However, it has given CableOne the OK to use them in one small system in Tennessee. (See Evolution Guns for HD Box Waiver , Broadcom Breaks Out HD-DTA Chipset , Cable ONE Seeks $50 HD Box, and Cable ONE Snares HD Set-Top Waiver .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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