The Congressional mandate for the FCC's Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC) is pretty clear: draft recommendations for an industry-wide downloadable security system that is technology- and platform-neutral, and that enables retail competition for cable set-tops and other pay-TV-compatible devices. (See FCC Launches Downloadable Security Push.)
Unfortunately, the process for carrying out that mandate is a muddled mess.
At the first DSTAC meeting in Washington DC Monday, the committee had a difficult time even defining the scope of its work. In guiding the discussion, Alison Neplokh, chief engineer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Media Bureau, suggested that the group should consider two main topics: how a downloadable security successor to the despised CableCARD could and should be used, and what that solution might look like as a black box model.
Instantly, however, there were questions about how to define a proposed black box solution. Should it be a separate piece of hardware offering an interface between a service provider's network and consumer video devices? Or should it reside in silicon?
Neplokh also stated an assumption that most video would be IP-delivered by the time a CableCARD successor would need to be implemented. But many on the committee strongly disagreed with that notion. Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) SVP Mark Hess, for example, argued that there would still be one-way broadcast networks for quite some time. And Charter Communications Inc. SVP and CTO Jay Rolls noted that the migration to IP is taking place in bits and pieces, with different operators approaching the process differently.
Acknowledging the differences among video distribution systems, TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) CTO Joseph Weber shared his hope that there would be a finite number of "black box" solutions that retailers would have to deal with.
Neplokh asked if it would be possible to get down to a single solution. Rolls, however, responded that while it might be possible in a green-field environment, creating a single solution probably wouldn't be a practical goal given the situation that stands today.
During informal lunch-time discussions, both attendees from the DSTAC meeting and participants brought up an additional interesting point as well. Notably, while the committee is tasked with recommending a successor technology to CableCARD, the parameters for a solution are much different today than they were when CableCARD was created nearly a decade ago. CableCARD technology only had to apply to cable operators. The DSTAC group is expected to recommend a solution that works for cable, telecom, satellite and potentially over-the-top video providers.
Further complicating matters, several DSTAC members pointed out later that it's difficult to separate out the content an operator delivers from the added services attached to that content. Those services include everything from accessibility features like a voice-activated program guide to targeted advertising and content recommendations. How could or should a downloadable security solution designed for retail products apply to those types of operator-specific applications?
Making a surprise guest appearance in the afternoon, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler applauded and encouraged the DSTAC team's work. Acknowledging that the committee's task is non-trivial, Wheeler stated that, "We are under no illusions about the challenge that that mandate represents, but we got a message, we got our instructions."
From the tenor of the group's debate, though, it sounds like those instructions could still use a good deal more clarification.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading