TiVo, Cable Re-Spark SDV Debate

TiVo wants cable to support switched digital video with IP backchannels, but MSOs say it would be costly and expose them to security holes

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

June 15, 2010

5 Min Read
TiVo, Cable Re-Spark SDV Debate

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) docket is rapidly filling up with comments as the agency gets ready to chew on a new set of CableCARD rules, but early on it's becoming quite clear that the stage is being set for a big battle between the cable industry and TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) when it comes to switched digital video (SDV). (See FCC Floats 'Simple' Gateway, CableCARD Rules .)

Boiled down, TiVo wants the FCC to install new rules that would offer an alternative way for its CableCARD-based DVRs to access channels in an MSO's switched tier. The cable industry, in comparison, insists that no more rules are required because the current way of doing that -- via a separate device called the Tuning Adapter -- is handling the job just fine.

It's TiVo's current view that the Tuning Adapter -- made by Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) -- is woefully inadequate, akin to adding yet another clunky set-top box to the mix.

Motorola's Tuner Adapter model, for example, uses the same form factor as the vendor's DCT700 , an all-digital cable box that uses integrated security (so no CableCARD). TiVo claims it accepted the original Tuning Adapter proposal back in November 2007 hoping that the final product would come in the form of a small set-back adapter or a "dongle" that would be the size of a deck of playing cards.

Motorola defended its decision to opt for the DCT700, claiming it did so "in order to minimize production costs and speed deployment of the device to market."

TiVo is now proposing an alternative method that uses an IP-based communications backchannel between the DVR and the cable operator's headend to set up the SDV sessions. TiVo's already using this technique with RCN Corp. in the operator's Washington and New York City systems to deliver RCN's video-on-demand (VoD) content to TiVo Premiere boxes that are being leased to the MSO's subs. (See RCN to Expand TiVo 'Premiere' Rollout.)

In its comments, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) said it's "particularly confounded" by TiVo's call for an SDV alternative, "given that TiVo previously supported the Tuning Adapter solution that the cable industry funded and deployed at TiVo's request."

The cable industry also poked many a hole in TiVo's alternative, claiming it could "pose numerous technical issues, all for a very small handful of legacy one-way devices."

The NCTA, for example, claimed that those challenges include how to provide a secure SDV signaling path with guaranteed speed and priority on the cable network, as well as some security and authentication shortcomings it has identified in TiVo's IP-based proposal. The NCTA added that the proposal might be better suited for the FCC's companion Notice of Inquiry on the "AllVid" proposal rather than as part of a short-term fix for the existing CableCARD regime. (See All About the FCC's AllVid and FCC Inches Towards Net-Agnostic Gateways.)

Cox Communications Inc. , meanwhile, arguedthat the TiVo-sponsored alternative could leave boxes with IP backchannels and publicly routable IP addresses vulnerable to spoofing attacks and denial of service attacks.

"To defend against these kinds of threats requires more complicated server architecture than is currently necessary using the private communications path associated with use of tuning adapters," Cox noted.

Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) also chimed in, claiming it would cost the MSO a "considerable sum to deploy servers in headends nationwide to translate IP signals into a format compatible with TWC's cable systems."

TiVo begged to differ on the costs of its proposal, estimating that the core hardware and software investment for the necessary IP backchannel setup to support up to 25,000 inherently one-way boxes for SDV would cost between $10,000 to $25,000. To emphasize its point, TiVo likewise estimated that Tuning Adapters, plus any necessary truck rolls, can cost $85 to $150 per user. At that level, cable operators would need only to serve a "few hundred" customers to start saving money with the IP backchannel proposal, TiVo insisted.

Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS), which faces the same issue TiVo does with its own Moxi-branded retail DVR boxes, agreed that eliminating the need for a Tuning Adapter for SDV "would be desirable," but still sided with the cable industry's position, holding that "mandating an entirely new approach creates a real risk of doing more harm than good." (See Arris Digs Digeo .)

NCTA: Dissolve the integration ban
The SDV issue is just one component of the larger CableCARD rules proposal that aims to "fix" some shortcomings with current rules, but the NCTA offered the FCC yet another suggestion: do away with the set-top security integration ban altogether.

The NCTA acknowledged that support for CableCARDs should not be abandoned in the near-term, but questioned whether the Commission should continue to require operators to use separable security in all boxes (without a special waiver from the FCC) given that there is now widespread adoption and support for the removable security modules.

"The question therefore is not whether all cable devices need to have CableCARDs, but whether enough CableCARDs have been deployed to assure that support. The answer is plainly yes. The ten largest cable operators have now deployed nearly 20 million CableCARDs in their own leased devices, compared to fewer than 490,000 CableCARDs in retail devices," the NCTA noted. "Twenty million devices -- more than 40 times the number of CableCARDs used by retail devices -- are more than enough to achieve the Commission’s common relianceobjectives."

This initial comment period is just the start of what should be an active summer within the FCC set-top security docket. The Commission hopes to have its new CableCARD rules in place by the fall of 2010.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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