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CEA Presses for CableCard Successor

Jeff Baumgartner
6/30/2009

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a new rule establishing a downloadable and "nationally portable" conditional access (CA) system that would work on any U.S. video network and buttress the retail efforts of set-top and TV makers.

As envisioned, the downloadable system would succeed the CableCARD, a removable security module that most U.S. MSOs are using today to meet the requirements of an integrated set-top security ban that went into effect in July 2007.

The CEA believes the introduction of a downloadable module would help establish a level playing field for set-top makers and spawn a retail market for the devices. Short of a special waiver from the FCC, MSOs are not allowed to purchase and deploy digital set-tops that include integrated security functionality. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven', Boxing Up 'Seven-Oh-Seven' , and Show Me the M-Card!.)

A renewed call for a common downloadable CA is one of the key takeaways from comments the CEA filed in response to recent waiver requests from Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Pace Micro Technology , and Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453), which are all seeking passes at the FCC for their digital terminal adapters (DTAs) -- simple one-way, digital-to-analog converter boxes that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is deploying aggressively to fuel a massive "all-digital" project. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan .)

Those four suppliers applied for blanket waivers at the FCC after Evolution Broadband LLC obtained a three-year waiver for two of its DTA models. It marked the first time a manufacturer had won such a waiver. All the previous passes had gone to service providers. (See FCC Believes in Evolution-ary DTAs, Cisco, Moto Go for DTA Waivers , and DTA Waiver Mania.)

In the wake of Evolution's waiver, the FCC encouraged other set-top makers to submit similar "limited capability" devices that use integrated security. The FCC has pledged to look at those requests expeditiously, giving any opponents 10 days to file comments.

The CEA opposed the original Evolution DTA waiver request, fearful that broad deployment of operator-supplied DTAs would undermine the July 2007 integrated security ban and hinder the development of a retail market for interactive, cable-ready, digital set-tops and TVs.

CEA outlines new DTA concerns
In almost identical comments filed within the last week in response to the latest round of waiver requests, the CEA spelled out a cavalcade of concerns it has about DTAs, particularly models that employ "latent" content protection that could be activated with a firmware upgrade.

DTAs already deployed by Comcast in Motorola-based cable systems, for example, are currently delivering programming "in the clear," but are capable of using a protection scheme called "privacy mode" if the MSO decides to activate it later with a software update. (See Comcast's DTAs: Security Optional .)

On that point, the CEA wants the FCC to clarify its position on security, holding that "there is no meaningful distinction between 'decryption' and 'conditional access.' " In the CEA's view, any box that decrypts a digital cable signal "should be considered a conditional access device and subject to that [integrated set-top security] rule."

The DTA box makers have argued that their security measures are "not integrated" and therefore not subject to that rule, because content protection is switched on via a downloadable component.

Regardless, the CEA has also asked the FCC to require MSOs and their suppliers to "disclose the full specifications of those [DTA] devices," and to push for a new, nationally portable downloadable conditional access system.

PolyCipher LLC , an MSO joint venture, tried to do just that, but that project is now back in the hands of CableLabs , and there's no sign that any of the earlier work will manifest itself into a commercially viable system in the near-term. Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), meanwhile, is moving ahead with a downloadable security platform of its own based on the NDS Ltd. "key ladder." (See MSOs Closing PolyCipher Headquarters, Cablevision Holds Firm , and Cablevision Scores Set-Top Waiver Extension .)

However, the cable industry, primarily through the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) , has historically shown interest in developing a security interface that would apply to cable, telco, and satellite TV operators. (See Brenner Defends OpenCable .)

But CableCARDs will continue to dominate the U.S. cable set-top security landscape for the foreseeable future. According to documents released by the NCTA late last week, the top 10 "incumbent" cable MSOs have deployed more than 14.08 million operator-supplied set-tops with CableCARDs since the mandate took effect two years ago. By comparison, those same MSOs have deployed just over 437,800 CableCARD modules for use in retail devices.

Another CEA warning
Finally, the CEA wants assurances from the FCC that the Commission will be careful in extending additional waivers to devices that are more advanced than the original, unidirectional, standard-def boxes submitted by Evolution Broadband. Again, the CEA is worried that the development of operator-supplied DTAs brimming with bells and whistles will undercut the aims of a retail set-top market.

The CEA has a very rigid view of what it believes DTAs should, and, more importantly, should not do: DTAs should be capable of displaying only standard-definition video; be devoid of two-way applications such as interactive program guides, video-on-demand (VoD), pay-per-view, and digital video recorders; and should not include broadband Internet connections.

"These requirements will assure that… advanced competitive devices will be able to compete fairly with operator-provided devices," the CEA said.

But that wish list, at least when it comes to high-definition content delivery, may be arriving at the party a bit late.

The FCC has already given Cable One Inc. the green light to deploy a high-def-capable DTA in one small system in Tennessee. Evolution has also told Cable Digital News that it intends to seek a blanket waiver for an HD-DTA it's developing. (See Evolution Guns for HD Box Waiver and Cable ONE Snares HD Set-Top Waiver .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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