CableLabs Takes Over DCAS Project From PolyCipher

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CableLabs is taking over the downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) initiative that has been run by PolyCipher, the video-encryption joint venture of three cable operators that will effectively shut down at the end of June.

Jud Cary, CableLabs vice president of video technology policy and deputy general counsel, said the consortium -- which already handled the licensing of DCAS to equipment vendors -- will take over all project-management aspects of the project.

"It's not a discontinuation of the project," Cary said in an interview. "I think what PolyCipher was facing was that they didn't necessarily need a Denver office. CableLabs offers some scale and synergies with ongoing projects," he added, such as the tru2way interactive cable services platform.

Earlier this month, Cable Digital Newsreported that PolyCipher's cable operator owners were shutting down the venture's Denver office.

PolyCipher was formed by Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable in mid-2004, and the companies have invested at least $30 million in the venture, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.

DCAS was supposed to be a less expensive solution than CableCards for complying with FCC rules that require cable operators to allow third-party consumer electronics devices to access encrypted video programming.

But the costs associated with the DCAS design, which incorporates a secure microprocessor, were more than PolyCipher and the MSOs originally expected. At the same time, the cost of CableCards has continued to fall.

"The economics of downloadable security are challenging," Kevin Leddy, Time Warner Cable executive vice president of technology policy and product management, said on a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. "At this point the cost to a television set for a CableCard slot is a couple of bucks. To put the more complex technology into the television to do downloadable security will probably add more cost."

Last summer, Cisco Systems and Motorola took a more hands-on role in steering the development of DCAS. As part of that process, the DCAS specification "has really gone through a re-architecting exercise, which is still underway," CableLabs chief technology officer Ralph Brown said.

"There was some input from the vendor that led to some improvements in the architecture that we felt was appropriate... some fundamental changes," Brown said, declining to be more specific.

At this point, there may be a less complex and less costly way to implement portable security for video programming than DCAS, according to industry observers, such as using software-based digital rights management (DRM) systems.

Asked whether DRM could be used in a cable context, Brown said, "I think the jury is still out to a certain degree. There's still a lot of experimentation. DRM is currently being used for distribution of video content in a number of business models, whether that's Netflix, Amazon or iTunes -- so as you look at the spectrum... I think the business models continue to evolve."

Cary noted there are a few licensees for DCAS, including Panasonic, LG Electronics and Samsung, but given that PolyCipher has not produced a complete specification no products would have been developed for the technology yet.

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