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CableLabs Dials M for Multi-Stream

Cable Television Laboratories Inc. (CableLabs) , the industry's R&D consortium, unveiled a streamlined process Monday for testing Multi-Stream CableCARD (M-Card) compatibility with consumer electronics devices, such as digital TVs, digital video recorders (DVRs), and DVD players. Using an M-Card, which handles key security functions such as authentication and decryption, consumers can tune into digital cable services without the need for a specialized set-top box (STB) from their cable provider.

While the consumer electronics industry quite naturally loves the idea, cable operators have embraced it primarily to comply with a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate. Despite an occasional happy-handshake news release by cable and CE industry players, the relationship between the camps remains acrimonious. (See Cable, CE Firms Start New Spat Over CableCARD Failures).

The rollout of so-called one-way CableCARDs has also been rocky. Consumer adoption of the technology has been slow, in part because the one-way implementation does not offer access to interactive cable features like pay-per-view events, electronic program guides, and video-on-demand (VOD) services. Nor does it work well with DVRs and TV sets with picture-in-picture capabilities.

M-Card addresses these issues by providing bi-directional cable network access for digital CE devices while decrypting multiple streams of video programming. The latter feature enables DVR users to watch one channel while recording another. The top suppliers of conditional access hardware and software to North American MSOs -- Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and Cisco's Scientific Atlanta -- have already earned CableLabs approval for their M-Cards. (See Motorola 'M-Card' Gains CableLabs Approval.) Now, CableLabs is working to confirm that those cards interoperate with CE devices, ostensibly to avoid consumer installation headaches.

Through its new initiative, CableLabs will offer verification testing of CE devices for M-Card compatibility as part of its Certification Wave 49 in January 2007. After achieving initial verification, CE manufacturers may self-verify that their M-Card-enabled devices are compliant. CableLabs says its M-Card testing initiative is supported by suppliers Digeo Inc. , Digital Keystone, Motorola, Solekai, TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO), and ViXS Systems Inc. The absence of major CE players from that list could be interpreted as yet another example of the continuing industry rift, as well as CE suspicion about cable's commitment to M-Card.

Despite the M-Card testing push, cable operators readily acknowledge that they hope the technology is short-lived. Rather than doling out expensive security cards for video devices that consumers purchase at retail, MSOs prefer downloadable conditional access systems (DCAS). (See NCTA Unveils Downloadable Conditional Access Plan). Not only would a software-based solution be cheaper for cable operators to install and manage, MSO engineers contend that DCAS is more secure because it allows a compromised access technology to be quickly patched or replaced.

— Michael Harris, Chief Analyst, Cable Digital News

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