Set-Tops and July 2006: A Primer


Technologists involved in digital set-top policy were doing a happy dance (internally, of course) a week ago, gladdened by the FCC's decision to relax a technical deadline that would've hit — and hit pretty hard — in early 2005.

The language of the FCC decision is tricky, because it starts with a double negative and ends with terminology: Cable operators are no longer not allowed to deploy integrated set-tops after January of 2005. Now, they're no longer allowed to deploy integrated boxes after July of 2006.


Maybe forever

Translation: The FCC's decision means that if you're a cable operator, you can keep on deploying the types of digital set-tops you've been deploying until July of 2006. Maybe forever, if you show meaningful progress on the work with consumer-electronics manufacturers to embed set-top functionality into digital TVs and other wares — otherwise known as "the plug-and-play agreement."

The types of digital set-tops cable providers are deploying today are what the FCC calls "integrated devices." What's integrated about them is the security: The electronic padlock is inside
the plastic housing.

Known in tech lingo as "conditional access and encryption" and productized as the duo of "PODs" and "POD slots," the padlock protects premium video services, so that only those who pay for them receive them.

In today's digital set-tops, the padlocks come from two primary suppliers: Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. Motorola's is called "DigiCipher." S-A's is called "Powerkey."

Set-tops deployed after the July 2006 deadline need the padlock on the out
side. The box gets a secure receptacle. That's the "POD slot." The card goes by "POD."

POD stands for "point of deployment," although rumors abound that cable's marketers are diligently noodling a replacement name that is hopefully less reminiscent of a horror film.

The NCTA puts the incremental cost at $72 — per unit — to incorporate the card and slot. A cost hammer that heavy would almost certainly hit cable customers in the wallet. That's the rationale driving the need for meaningful progress on plug and play, so as to remove the deadline entirely.

The specifications and standards that make PODs work aren't new. In two months, three years will have elapsed since the industry, through Cable Television Laboratories Inc.'s "OpenCable" effort, met the FCC's deadline to enable set-tops with separable security for entrance into the retail scene.

No PODs about

But about as many retailers are stocking cable set-tops with removable security as cable operators are stocking pickled eggs. It just never got off the ground.

If you're wondering why, answer this question: If somebody put $300 in your pocket, and told you to go crazy at the electronics store down the street, would you buy: A, the DVD player; B, the digital camera; C, the MP3 gizmo; or D, the cable set-top box with a slot for a removable security card?

A standard is one thing. Deploying the fruits of it — in volume — is another. Whether the plan is to prepare for PODs in plug and play devices, like digital TV sets, or to prepare for PODs in set-tops, here's an item from the Department of the Obvious: They're new. They're new for operators, and for manufacturers. They'll need nurturing.

Where's OCAP?

Nurturing differs from one new thing to another. Does the digital scrambling system in the headend have the right accoutrements to shuttle its secrets back and forth with a card, instead of an embedded chip? Does anything change in field installs, or customer care?

And don't forget this: Is OCAP middleware part of the project?

OCAP, or OpenCable Applications Platform, isn't discussed in the FCC's deadline extension, but it warrants discussion. If it is part of the plan, who will write the modules you'll need? What has to happen in the headend, for handling of OCAP-based applications?

Software means ongoing code revisions, which could involve several unaffiliated entities. Are existing organizational structures ready for that, and is there a strategy for handling version control?

Procrastination is a powerful potion. No one knows this better than people who write for a living. We go so far as to consider procrastination a tool of the craft, much in the same way baseball players consider their various talismans to be tools of luck. Something useful will come out, we hope, right at that moment when the terror hits, and we realize we can't dally any longer. (Manifestations vary; mine is the suddenly alphabetized spice rack, or the completely reorganized hall closet.)

Don't relax

But this POD thing is the aperture to a new working environment. It's surrounded by technological foreshadowing — of the "digitally-transitioned" world. Getting relaxation on a deadline, with the tacit implication that meaningful progress is anticipated in the meantime, doesn't mean one should relax.

This is an extension delivered with both eyebrows raised, hands on hips, and one foot tapping expectantly on the floor.

Suddenly, three years and change doesn't seem that far away.

Questions? Suggestions? Contact Leslie Ellis at