Sony Offers Ops New Passage

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Anaheim, Calif.— Sony Corp. created a rare buzz on the Western Show floor with the announcement of a technology it claims can give operators safe passage out of "two sizes fits all" world of digital-video conditional access and open the market to more set-top box makers.

Sony's Passage system provides a way to create two versions of conditional-access encryption that can flow side-by-side in a digital headend.

Under the scheme, digital-video signals transmitted into a video hub would be separated into critical data and non-critical data. Critical data — including vital information about changes to a frame image and constitutes up to 10 percent of the total video data payload — would then be sent to the legacy conditional-access system and any alternative conditional-access system.

Two encrypted versions of the critical data would be produced, and both would be recombined with the unencrypted non-critical data for transmission to digital set-tops.

Blow to 'duopoly'?

Such a system could loosen the traditional hold that the "duopoly" of Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Motorola Inc. have preserved in the digital-video gear arena.

By giving operators the opportunity to add another conditional-access system, they could diversify the vendor list for encryption, headend controllers and digital boxes, according to Gregory Gudorf, vice president of business planning for Sony's digital platform division of America.

"Passage is our attempt to open up what has been a closed market," he said as he stood at a crowded Sony booth — one of the few traffic jams seen on the show floor Wednesday. "We've been through successful lab trials already with Motorola and SA systems. We've been in discussions with several MSOs about lab tests. We are ready to go."

MSOs may well be interested in a way to add a second conditional-access system. And Passage could provide even more — in the booth, Sony demonstrated three access options.

A bandwidth price must be paid, though. For every extra conditional-access system added, the system will sop up between 2 percent and 10 percent of the available stream capacity, depending on how much copy protection is riding along with the video.

Sony has gathered a laundry list of technology partners to support Passage, including fellow box maker Pace Microtechnologies plc, along with Digeo Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Terayon Communication Systems Inc., Broadcom Corp. and NDS Group plc.

Diego seems keen

For partner Digeo, the Passage project offers the potential for wider box distribution.

"Passage gives more choice to the cable operators," Digeo chief operating officer Bert Kolde said. "That falls in line with our strategy, which is like Sherman Williams — we cover the earth."

One company not on the list just yet is Pioneer Electronics Inc. Although the digital set-top provider might benefit from a wider box market, there already is a retail availability effort under way through the OpenCable inititive, with its point-of-deployment interface to allow boxes to work in any system, according to Pioneer vice president of software engineering Haig Krakirian. So for now the company is content to watch the project and see what results.

Pioneer already has deployed some 2 million digital boxes in American homes, but it does not offer conditional-access products, so Passport "is not something that is going to help us in the near term."

Krakirian added what Sony is trying to do seems technically sound, but it remains to be seen if it will work.

"It's another venture that is trial and error. Is this something the MSOs want to do?" Krakirian said. "They would have to have some MSOs sign up and try it."

Sony, meanwhile, is ready to start such trials as early as late spring or early summer, and from there it could go live with the dual conditional-access system with a cable MSO customer, Gudorf said.

"If you think about it, the MSOs have been limited to two options," he said. "Now this opens up the window and provides a breath of fresh air."

Sony also unveiled a new line of digital set-top boxes now available, including a stripped down basic version of the box it created for Cablevision Systems Corp. as well as a high-definition box, a unit with HD tuning and digital video recorder function, and a box based on Digeo's Moxi multimedia gateway design.

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