March 16, 2007
Separable Security Deadline Coming Down the Tracks
By Mike Robuck
Dating back to last year, separable security has been at the top of most cable operators' to-do lists. The "7/07" mandate by the Federal Communications Commission requires that cable operators no longer deploy digital set-top boxes with embedded security by the July 1 deadline.
Until downloadable conditional access (DCAS) reaches fruition, cable operators are staring at CableCards as the method of providing separable security to meet the FCC's mandate. For their part, vendors have taken up the challenge in designing the set-top boxes with slots for CableCards. Both Motorola and Scientific Atlanta showed off their new set-top boxes with removable CableCards at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, while Pace introduced CableCard versions of its product line earlier this month at the CableLabs Winter Conference in Denver.
Scientific Atlanta and Motorola have set-top boxes that support CableLabs's Multistream CableCard (M-Card) specification to allow multiple video streams to be used at the same time, while Pace is using Motorola's M-Card for native applications in a nonportable host mode until its set-top boxes are OpenCable Host certified by CableLabs.
Panasonic will have set-top boxes with M-Cards available in August, according to Vice President Richard Strabel. The DCH 2180 will also have OCAP and DSG functions as well as separable security and serve as one of Comcast's RNG-200 set-top boxes.
"It's (the DCH 2180) going into testing at Comcast next month," Strabel said. "It will be the August time frame by the time it gets through field trials and such."
An early implementation of OpenCable formerly known as point-of-deployment (POD) modules, CableCards are costly and currently only uni-directional: CableCard-equipped TV sets and set-top boxes can only receive information from the cable headend; they can't send return signals for services such as VOD or pay-per-view.
OCAP developed alongside separable security
While separable security is charting its own course thanks to the FCC mandate, its often grouped together with the CableLabs' OCAP. Along with DCAS, OCAP will eventually provide a secure, two-way platform that will allow cable operators to safely, and more cost effectively, download software and applications into OCAP-enabled set-top boxes and TV sets, which makes separable security a necessary evil for the present.
"We really have a separate effort going for separable security, but eventually it will come together with OCAP," said Mark Hess, Comcast's senior vice president of digital television. "Our first version of the CableCard boxes from Motorola and S-A will be using the current native code that we're using now for both of those boxes. Obviously, the OCAP work we're doing is being integrated with CableCards. All of the work we're doing on OCAP is with separable security, but we're also getting ready to put those boxes out in a native fashion."
Bob Blackburn, Charter's senior director digital engineering, said Charter is currently using set-top boxes for testing separable security and OCAP in its Denver lab.
"The Panasonic box (in the lab) runs with an M-Card as well as the Motorola 6416," Blackburn said. "We also have the full suite of host devices (HD and DVR set-top boxes) from both Motorola and S-A in our labs for testing and for getting ready for the separable security mandate. Eventually, those boxes will run OCAP, but the plan right now is to go to 7/07 with the host device and M-Card running the legacy applications."
Comcast, Cox and Charter have been using Panasonic's "golden box," set-top to get ready for separable security, OCAP and DSG.
"We've made reference platforms for Comcast and other MSOs with DSG, CableCards and OCAP," Strabel said. "It's something that has been tested over and over again, so that when they hook it up to their system, they'll understand how this works. If the headend doesn't work with the (golden) box, then there's something wrong with the headend, or if another box doesn't work, then it relates back to the golden box."
What about small and medium cable operators?
With the deadline fast approaching, some cable companies are hedging their bets against the FCC deadline by filing for waivers. There are rumors that small to medium-sized cable operators are stuck standing in the back of the line when it comes to the delivery of set-top boxes with CableCards, and even when they take delivery of them, they'll still have to go through testing with the boxes before getting them into customers' homes.
Earlier this year, the FCC said it would defer enforcement of the deadline for small operators who can demonstrate that they've placed orders for the set-top boxes that comply with the separable security mandate, but won't have their orders fulfilled in time to meet the deadline.
"Motorola has been planning alongside customers for over a year as they transition to separable security," said Motorola spokesman Paul Alfieri. "We've got a plan in place with each of them to ensure we transition our shipments to separable security devices in time for them to meet the 7/07 deadline."
- Mike Robuck