The pending end of the integrated security ban for cable set-tops is a very big deal. Not just because it means CableCARD technology is (slowly) on its way out, but because it means there's now a power vacuum just waiting to be filled.
Immediately after the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR) was signed into law late last year, with a sunset provision for the integrated security ban, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) posted a notice saying it would draft experts to serve on an advisory committee on downloadable content security. (See Obama Signs CableCARD Death Warrant.)
Unlike CableCARDs, which have to be physically installed in every set-top, downloadable security can be delivered via a software update to cable boxes in subscriber homes. The objective is the same -- to protect cable programming from piracy -- but the method is much less cumbersome. And the FCC wants to figure out how the technology could be broadly commercialized.
The cable industry isn't against the idea of downloadable security, but there are debates about how it should be standardized and deployed. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) (previously Scientific Atlanta) and Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) (previously Motorola) have dominated the conditional access (CA) market for decades. However, widespread adoption of a new downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) could change the power dynamics significantly.
Many different parties have a stake in the game.
A short history
At this point, a short history lesson is in order.
The cable industry has been working on downloadable security for years. Perhaps most notably, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cox Communications Inc. formed a joint venture called PolyCipher back in 2004 to develop a workable DCAS solution. However, after only limited progress, implementation of PolyCipher was handed over to Cisco and Motorola in 2008, and participation by the cable companies in the joint effort steadily declined after that.
As Alticast Corp. CTO John Carlucci (who was also just promoted to President of North American Operations) explained in a recent interview, PolyCipher eventually got shipped over to South Korea, where the technology is now part of a fully deployed system called XCAS (X for exchangeable). In the US, on the other hand, PolyCipher gradually withered on the vine.
PolyCipher wasn't the only US effort underway, however. Among other development projects, Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), quite apart from the PolyCipher JV, partnered with NDS (now part of Cisco) to create a solution called Open Media Security/Key Ladder (OMS or OMS/KLAD). The New York MSO has since deployed OMS widely and has even spread its enthusiasm for the initiative to other parts of the industry.
Once several top Cablevision executives migrated to Charter Communications Inc. circa 2012, that cable company started testing OMS as well. Charter now plans to use OMS for downloadable security in its upcoming WorldBox set-tops. (See Charter Thinks Outside the 'Worldbox'.)
Downloadable security today
Fast forward to the present.
Since OMS has gained traction at two of the top five US MSOs, it stands to reason that those operators plan to tell the FCC how their approach to downloadable security could and should be used more broadly. The question is, how do Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox -- the three biggest US MSOs -- feel about that? And what will their presumed representatives on the FCC committee recommend as a strategy?
In addition, how does the rest of the technology vendor community feel? Beyond Broadband Technology LLC (BBT) has been lobbying for another downloadable security solution entirely. And it's hard to imagine that industry giant Arris is going to willingly let someone else grab the reins on DCAS.
Finally, where might downloadable security strategies fit in with current plans for CVP-2 (aka VidiPath) deployments? VidiPath is designed to enable secure streaming over a home network. What role could and should that technology play in the broader conditional access discussion?
There are many more questions than answers, but that's precisely why the FCC is forming an advisory committee. The agency is choosing its candidates now and should have a list of participants in the near future. According to the FCC.gov website, the first meeting of the committee is scheduled to take place no later than March 4.
Then the debate can really begin.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading