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First Look: Evolution's CableCARD

Evolution Broadband LLC has provided Cable Digital News with an early look at a CableCARD developed for a new Digital Video Broadcast (DVB)-based digital TV platform it's pitching to small and mid-sized U.S. cable operators. (See Evolution Thinks Small .)

Interestingly, Evolution's CableCARD implementation relies heavily on the Conax AS SmartCard. In fact, the design calls for the SmartCard to fit inside a sheath that uses the traditional CableCARD design and form factor. (See Conax: Blankom Must Go Through Evolution and Evolution, Conax Sign Exclusive Deal.)

CA triple play

Evolution is seeking certification at CableLabs and aims to obtain the green light for its CableCARD sometime in the first quarter of this year. If successful, Evolution's offer will become the fourth CableCARD to gain certification from the cable industry's Louisville, Colo.-based R&D house. Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and NDS Ltd. have already achieved certification. (See Evolution Preps New CableCARD.)

Once approved, Evolution plans to match its CableCARD with a new line of tru2way boxes from KAON Media Co. Ltd. and other box makers.

"We've adapted the world DVB standard to the CableCARD," says Evolution chairman John Egan Sr.

But Evolution's plans for the Conax conditional access (CA) system don't start and stop with the CableCARD/tru2way implementation. As the image above illustrates, it's also using the Conax SmartCard in some DVB-based, interactive boxes outfitted with SmartCard slots, and it's aiming to use smaller SIMs (subscriber identity modules) derived from the larger SmartCard inside simple, one-way digital terminal adapters (DTAs).

The potential problem facing Evolution is that, historically, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not recognized the SmartCard (or the smaller SIM, for that matter) as an approved method that complies with the integrated set-top security regulations that went into effect in July 2007. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven'.) In fact, Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), which still uses NDS SmartCards, is on the hook to migrate to an FCC-approved system by July 2009. Cablevision, however, has asked for a waiver extension so it can complete the development of a new downloadable conditional access system. (See Cablevision Counters CEA CableCARD Claims, CEA Chirps at Cablevision Set-Top Request , and Cablevision Seeks Extended Security Waiver.)

Evolution, meanwhile, has asked the FCC to grant it a temporary security waiver for its DTA, which uses the smaller Conax SIM, a module that contains the "brains" of the conditional access system. Evolution says it's seeking the three-year waiver so its cable operator customers don't have to make separate requests of their own.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has formally opposed Evolution's request, claiming that the security methods used are not available to competitive entrants or "implemented competitively on a nationally portable basis." Evolution has countered that more than 200 set-top box vendors currently use the Conax CA.

The FCC has yet to act on the matter.

"We are 100 percent behind providing CableCARD technology," Egan insists. He claims Evolution's approach with conditional access upholds the "spirit" of the FCC rule because the tru2way/CableCARD option ensures that set-top box makers still have access to an open interface that enables them to develop retail products for cable systems that adopt Evolution's digital platform.

"We're not looking for relief from the CableCARD. We've adapted DVB security to meet U.S. standards," Egan argues. "Anytime you need a CableCARD, we'll sell it to you."

But, having a SmartCard option on some interactive, hi-def set-tops could save small operators some big bucks. Egan estimates that there's a $50 price difference between a SmartCard, which sells for less than $10 per unit, and the more expensive CableCARD implementation.

And those cost savings translate to the boxes, too. Eagan says Evolution can bring to market a DVB-based, MPEG-4 HD set-top that uses a Conax SmartCard for about $110 per unit. Evolution's standard-def DTAs sell for a bit more than $50 per unit when matched with the SIM-based security element.

Although it's supportive of tru2way and the CableCARD, Evolution believes smaller operators require these other, cheaper set-top options if they're to be successful at recapturing analog spectrum for broader hi-def menus and resuscitating systems with just 550 MHz of capacity ("upgraded" cable systems are built out to 750 MHz or more).

Egan says the financial survival of those systems will hinge on their ability to deploy a mix of high-end, mid-range, and entry-level boxes that use different physical forms of the same underlying conditional access system, rather than being saddled with a mandate that requires them only to purchase and deploy more expensive CableCARD-based boxes.

The "rural reality" is that "satellite subs are addicted to HD," Egan says, noting that smaller operators need to go all-digital and boost their hi-def offerings if they are to have any shot at fending off competitors like DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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