Will VueKey Trump Tru2way?

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

A budding separable security platform that allows for IPTV flows in digital set-tops isn't expected to disrupt cable's big tru2way initiative, but there are questions about whether consumer electronics giants will incorporate VueKey into retail televisions and set-tops.

The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) recently validated VueKey, a security and conditional access platform that uses the same form-factor as the removable CableCARD module and the CAbleCARD "host" interface. CableCARD appears in most newly deployed cable digital set-tops and in some digital television models. (See ATIS OKs CableCARD for IPTV.)

VueKey looks to conform with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ban on integrated set-top security that went into effect last summer, while taking advantage of a hardware platform that's already widely adopted. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven'.)

ATIS has not set a public timetable for VueKey module or device availability, but the organization plans to send the specs to its IPTV Interoperability Forum by year's end. ATIS also sees VueKey eventually becoming an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard.

"Our goal is not to go out and [create] an interface that would require consumer electronics companies to develop something brand new," says Mike Nawrocki, the chairman of the ATIS IP-Based Separable Security Incubator (ISSI). Nawrocki, who is also director of wireline standards for Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s technology division, notes that VueKey should be viewed as an "incremental" spec that incorporates support for IPTV.

CableLabs , which officially joined ATIS as an affiliate member in June, declined to comment about VueKey and its implications on tru2way. (See CableLabs Joins ATIS.)

Verizon's vue
VueKey is expected to be particularly attracive to Verizon, which insists that FiOS TV is incompatible with tru2way. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) has challenged that claim. (See Verizon: No Way on tru2way , NCTA Counters Verizon's Tru2way Claims , and Verizon Stokes a Tru2way Stalemate .)

With VueKey, Verizon could avoid using a security system largely controlled by its cable-industry competition. Plus, VueKey adopters can tap into the CableCARD ecosystem without being "encumbered," as one industry watcher puts it, by the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), the middleware component of tru2way.

"They [ATIS and Verizon] have come up with a scheme where there's an alternative key. It's really a simple attempt by Verizon to get access to the CableCARD form and function, but use a different copy protection initialization vector," says an industry observer who is close to conditional access activities. "Everything works the same, except that the key isn't owned by U.S. cable or CableLabs."

Although it appears that Verizon is trying to distance itself from the cable industry on this issue, it likely won't remove itself entirely from the process. Verizon has requested that CableLabs reserve for the telco's use some "message identifiers" in the multi-stream CableCARD specifications, according to people familiar with the situation. That would let Verizon use some additional commands and messages that pass between the host device and the security module.

Verizon still has an active FCC waiver for low-end digital set-tops. For the high end, Verizon's waiver expired in July, and it's been deploying Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)'s CableCARD-equipped QIP models ever since. (See Verizon & Others Get Their Waivers.)

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Truly two-way
Verizon's direct set-top suppliers might support VueKey first, but there are still big questions about what consumer electronics firms think of the effort.

Those contacted by Cable Digital News are watching VueKey but haven't committed yet.

Dr. Paul Liao, chief technology officer of Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC)'s North American division, said he likes the idea of creating a common interface that's applicable to different types of video operators. (Panasonic is a strong supporter of tru2way: See Promoting tru2way TVs and Denver, Chicago First to Get Tru2way TVs.)

However, he adds, "it would be great if they'd also adopt OCAP," because the middleware has much in common with platforms such as Java and Blu-ray and would give consumer electronics companies the economies of scale they crave. That echoes what CableLabs president and CEO Dr. Richard Green told telcos at the NXTcomm show in June. (See Telcos: Climb Aboard the Tru2way Train.)

An executive with another TV maker in the tru2way camp notes that consumer electronics companies gravitate to mass-market platforms. Tru2way has a huge headstart, but VueKey could spark some interest if companies find the licensing terms reasonable and don't have to customize their gear for it. (See Revealed: The Tru2way MOU.)

How about supporting tru2way and VueKey in the same device? Most agree it would be technically possible.

With the proper interface and keying infrastructure, for example, a digital set-top or television could operate in either mode as long as the host was using the correct security module and was authorized by the operator for digital services. However, such devices could cause some confusion in the market and would at least require new product labeling.

A more ambitious step would be an all-provider scheme for cable, telco, and even satellite video networks -- an idea NTCA and Verizon have endorsed.

VueKey "could be a step toward that," Verizon's Nawrocki says. "But it's not the endgame at this point."

Most industry followers, Nawrocki included, say a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) eventually will fit the bill. In addition to reaplcing the relatively clunky (and expensive) CableCARD, a downloadable CA and encryption system could be extended to Internet-based services delivered via PCs, handsets, and Blu-ray players.

PolyCipher LLC , a joint venture ofComcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Cox Communications Inc. , and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), has been working on a DCAS for several years, but implementation of the project has recently been handed over to Motorola, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and NDS Ltd. . (See Cisco, Moto Take Control of DCAS .)

ATIS, meanwhile, is assessing a range of DCAS approaches with the goal of recommending one by year's end, says technical coordinator Jim Turner.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to TelcoTV 2008, a conference and expo that will examine the convergence of communications and entertainment, and its impact on service providers from across the globe, to be staged in Anaheim, Calif., November 11-13. For more information, or to register, click here.

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