Policy

Motorola, Cisco Steering Cable’s DCAS Project

6/05/2008 11:34 AM Eastern

The two biggest cable-technology suppliers—Motorola and Cisco Systems—are now behind the wheel of the downloadable-security project being managed by PolyCipher, a joint venture of three operators.

Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable in recent months have directed PolyCipher to turn over virtually all development work to the two vendors, according to an executive familiar with the project.

Denver-based PolyCipher will continue to act as the liaison for Downloadable Conditional Access System (DCAS), which is supposed to deliver security credentials electronically to an embedded chip in a set-top box or DCAS-enabled consumer-electronics device.

The idea behind DCAS: to meet the Federal Communications Commission’s requirements for separable set-top security in a less cumbersome manner than CableCards.

Multichannel News reported last fall that Motorola and Cisco’s Scientific Atlanta unit were starting to more actively participate in PolyCipher (see “Download Incomplete”).

Now PolyCipher’s staff has been cut in half—to five full-time people—as the incumbent equipment providers shoulder the work to embed DCAS into set-top and headend products. NDS Group, which provides conditional-access technology to Cablevision Systems, is also working with PolyCipher at this stage.

“The vendors pointed out some improvements to the [PolyCipher DCAS] design,” the executive said. “And [the cable operators] said, ‘OK, come in and do things the way you think things should work. Get in a position where you can bless it and get it to work.’”

While no field trials of DCAS have been set, Motorola and Cisco at this point have “enough confidence” that their customers will pay the freight to engage in the required development work, the executive added.

PolyCipher previously was hoping to conduct system tests in early 2008. Now it looks like DCAS won’t be ready before 2009.

PolyCipher and the three operators declined to comment on the changes to the project or did not respond by press time.

Motorola, in a statement, said it is “keenly interested in working with our service provider customers on the evolution of separable security,” noting that it has shipped more than 4 million CableCard-based set-tops to date.

Cisco said it has been working “with our customers and PolyCipher on DCAS for some time” and will continue to do so, while ensuring the system is compatible with set-tops that are already deployed.

The three operators established PolyCipher—originally called Next Generation Network Architecture (NGNA)—in mid-2004, and the companies have invested at least $30 million in the venture, according to filings with the FCC.

In November 2005, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association told the FCC that DCAS would be ready for a national rollout by July 2008.

But with DCAS still nowhere near being ready by mid-2007, and with the Consumer Electronics Association complaining that the project was shrouded in secrecy, the FCC ruled last June that most cable operators would have to adopt CableCards in their own set-tops until the downloadable technology becomes viable.

One of the key problems has been the complexity involved in getting DCAS to work in existing Motorola and Cisco systems.

PolyCipher originally designed DCAS to have a separate high-speed chip for handling bulk decryption. Cisco and Motorola, however, wanted the architecture to look more like a CableCard, with a consolidated chip-set that handled all security functions.

Another issue for the vendors, according to the executive familiar with PolyCipher, was that they wanted to handle certificate-authority functions—assigning the unique IDs for each DCAS chip set—at their existing facilities. Previously the DCAS certificate authority was to be based in Columbia, Md., at the headquarters of EmbedICs, a security-processor firm that had been working with PolyCipher.

What’s next? The MSOs are said to be cautious of moving full-speed ahead on DCAS until the next presidential administration is in office—and, presumably, installs a new FCC chief to replace Kevin Martin, who has been notoriously combative with the industry.

“The FCC has endorsed the concept of DCAS, but we have no doubt that whatever we call DCAS would not be acceptable in this hostile administration,” a cable industry executive said. “We think if we went in and ‘asked permission’ it would be shot down.”

Other CA vendors, though, believe the FCC should adopt a broader downloadable-security standard than the PolyCipher-led DCAS.

Otherwise, with Cisco and Motorola driving the DCAS bus, “you’re going to further the stranglehold of that duopoly,” said Glenn Morten, chief technology officer of content-security provider Widevine Technologies.

September