Comcast's DTAs: Security Optional

The MSO can activate Moto's 'privacy mode' in its digital terminal adapters, but that could stir up trouble with the FCC

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

September 3, 2008

5 Min Read
Comcast's DTAs: Security Optional

Although Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) intends to deploy a new breed of digital terminal adapters (DTAs) initially sans security, those devices, which will help to fuel the MSO's "all-digital" strategy, will have the ability to add content protection later on, Cable Digital News has learned.

According to people familiar with the project, the Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) chipsets that will grace these DTAs will be capable of activating content protection via a firmware download. Those chips, at least for this phase of the project, are being hardwired or "burned in" with Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)'s "privacy mode" -- a content protection system that's already used with video-on-demand fare.

An industry exec familiar with privacy mode likens it to "a very simple CA [conditional access] system… that uses a long-term, fixed key structure." By comparison, the keys for a full-blown CA system are changed out frequently. For the foreseeable future, however, the privacy mode element in Comcast's DTAs will remain inert.

"We have no plans to activate that capability, but if we were to do that in the future it would be done in a way that would be in compliance with FCC rules, including obtaining any necessary waivers," a Comcast spokeswoman says.

Broadcom formally introduced its DTA system-on-a-chip, dubbed the BCM3545, last month. (See Broadcom Adapts Chipset for DTAs.) So far, Comcast has selected DTAs from three suppliers: Motorola, Pace Micro Technology , and Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453). (See DTAs on Parade , Comcast Gives Thomson Nod for DTAs , and Pace Pix .)

Although Comcast's initial DTA activity will center on cable systems based on Motorola's digital platform, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) also has a DTA on its roadmap. However, Cisco has not announced a purchase deal with Comcast or any other cable MSO, nor has it disclosed what kind of security or content protection those DTAs might support. (See Cisco Doubles Up for Cable.)

In the meantime, Comcast is moving ahead with a plan to go "all-digital" in 20 percent of its footprint this year. Using DTAs as the in-home centerpiece, the strategy will allow the operator to reclaim about 40 analog channels and use newly freed-up spectrum for broader high-definition television tiers, Docsis 3.0, and other advanced digital services. (See Comcast Confirms Digital Dongle Project and Comcast Enters the Wideband Era .)

People familiar with the plan say Comcast intends to purchase 6 million DTA units this year and another 12 million DTAs in 2009. DTA unit costs are expected to be in the neighborhood of $35.

To Page 2

The mandate debate
By not using encryption and content protection in the DTA, Comcast should steer clear of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ban on integrated set-top security that went into effect last July. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven'.) However, it's not yet clear how some programmers will react to Comcast's decision (at least in the early going) to deliver unencrypted digital content -- even a reduced channel lineup devoid of premium networks -- to these DTAs. If those programmers decide to turn up the heat, Comcast might be compelled to activate the privacy mode mechanism.

That, in turn, would probably open up a debate on whether Comcast's approach adheres to the FCC ban or the MSO will be required to seek out a special waiver.

Because Comcast's DTA content protection can be activated via a downloaded firmware update, the MSO's approach might find support under the present understanding of the separable security rules. Then again, that position might be challenged by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) , which is already opposing a three-year waiver being sought by Evolution Broadband LLC for DTAs that embed the Conax AS conditional access system. (See Evolution Thinks Small and CEA Attacks Cable One HD Plan.)

Some observers wonder if the MSO might argue that the privacy mode content protection scheme is not a full CA system and should, therefore, be exempt from the separable security rules. Then again, Comcast hasn't had much luck trying to get set-top exemptions lately. (See FCC Denies Comcast Waiver, Comcast Takes CableCARD Battle to Court , Comcast Appeals CableCARD Ruling, FCC Denies Comcast Again , and Comcast Denied Set-Top Waiver (Again).)

In fact, Comcast isn't exactly the FCC's favorite company these days. (See FCC Puts Comcast on the Clock and FCC's Martin Ready to Penalize Comcast.) So, it's widely believed Comcast won't try activating security in the DTAs until FCC chairman Kevin Martin is long gone.

"Comcast is trying to do as little as they can in the public forum to create any issue with the current [FCC] administration," says an industry source familiar with Comcast's DTA plans. "They might make another attempt [at a waiver] once they get out from underneath Martin's hand."

Other options
Comcast's use of Motorola's privacy mode would be proprietary to Motorola cable systems and to Motorola's encryption methodology, but that doesn't necessarily mean other conditional access system players would be locked out from the DTA security market forever.

For example, there's still a possibility that the largest U.S. cable MSOs might produce a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) as a long-term replacement for the CableCARD. But, considering recent events, an exact timeline for that somewhat secretive effort is difficult to pinpoint.

PolyCipher LLC , a joint venture of Comcast, Cox Communications Inc. , and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), was heading up such an effort, but the implementation of it has since been handed off to Motorola, Cisco, and NDS Ltd. . (See Cisco, Moto Take Control of DCAS .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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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