Policy

As July 2006 Gets Closer, Security Moves Onto To-Do Lists

12/05/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Nothing like the specter of a regulatory deadline to raise a frenzy — like the escalating din around digital set-tops installed after July 1, 2006.

The issue — widely covered within these pages and in ex parte filings by multiple (sparring) parties to the Federal Communications Commission — is about conditional access and encryption.

In other words, it’s the guts of set-top security. It goes like this: If the rule isn’t relaxed or removed, cable providers have to stop deploying digital boxes with built-in security, in about 18 months.

In a sense, shifting to boxes with removable security is like learning to write with your nondominant hand: Do-able, but maddeningly difficult, clumsy at first and time consuming to master.

If you’re a lefty and you’ve ever tried writing with your right hand, or vice versa, you know what happens: You desperately want to pick up the pen with your dominant hand, because you’re quicker and more adept and make cleaner strokes.

Except in this case, there’s nothing wrong with your dominant hand. You just can’t use it anymore, because that’s the rule.

Born worriers would take one look at this situation, and do what worriers do best: Imagine the worst possible outcome so that when it happens, they’re ready.

So let’s say it happens: You need to learn to write with your other hand, so to speak. Then what?

The proposed deadline doesn’t affect the fielded base of digital boxes, so that’s good.

It does mean that the digital boxes cable operators buy themselves, to furnish as part of whatever digital video offering they proffer, must contain a removable security slot.

In contemporary lingo, they need a “CableCARD” slot — not unlike the fruits of the one-way plug-and-play agreement, and the digital TVs and HDTVs now lining retail shelves.

The easy out is to say, so what? If the mechanisms are already in place to serve protected content to CableCARD devices sold at retail, what’s so tricky about doing the same thing for the boxes operators install themselves?

For starters, getting ready for July 2006 necessarily means dropping other initiatives, in order to put out the fire, deadline-wise. There are only so many video wizards on hand, to map out a plan, organize suppliers and get systems ready for a switch-over.

It’s early enough in the worry process that “technical to do lists” are still brewing.

More, technologists are making sure they know all the questions, in order to find all the answers.

BIG TWO NEED TWEAKS

A high priority, obviously, is getting suppliers ready.

As is known far and wide, cable’s two primary suppliers of video padlocks are Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

For those two suppliers to put the locks on the outside, instead of integrating them within their boxes, tweaks are required.

Not insignificant tweaks, some would say. Think of it this way: Since the beginning of digital boxes, security has been built in at the chip level.

Making security removable via CableCARD means re-designing those boxes, into a card, to shuttle security over different pins.

It means taking stuff apart and putting it together in a different way, so that it does the same thing.

That alone raises this question: How many models of how many digital boxes should have slots for removable security cards? All of them? Just the high-end units? Just the low-end units? Most manufacturers support five or more different models.

In any case, manufacturers generally need at least nine months notice to get going on new models. And that’s being generous.

Then there’s the issue of dual tuners. In order to support, say, digital video recorder services, there will be a need for what’s called a “multistream” card. That’s so one encrypted stream can be sent down for viewing, while another is sent to the DVR to be watched later.

Technical specifications for multistream cards are solid, MSO technologists submit, yet they don’t yet exist.

OCAP HAS IMPACT

Then there’s the question of meeting the deadline, while moving simultaneously toward things on the overall, industrial product road map for digital boxes, like OCAP (OpenCable Applications Platform) software.

OCAP matters to this discussion, in part, because it includes support for an out-of-band signal shuttling method known as “DSG,” for “DOCSIS Set-top Gateway.” DSG will become a key passageway because most set-tops, within 18 months, will include cable modems. (Many already do.) And it turns out that DSG is a useful method for sending security stuff to boxes.

Although the FCC rules don’t specifically mention OCAP, or DSG, both are in motion. They can’t be easily ignored.

And then there’s the billing system. To overly generalize, billing systems know how to track digital boxes per home. They don’t necessarily know how to track a mated box/card duo. That means tweaks to provisioning, staging and implementation of set-tops with removable security, in a way that the billing system can interpret.

Naturally, all of these steps are interrelated, yet most are still in the interpretive stage.

If the deadline holds, MSOs will be diving headlong into the details as 2005 unfolds. They’ll be learning to write with “the other hand.”

If nothing else, they’ll be able to listen to the applause of that one hand, clapping.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at www.translation-please.com.

November