Separable security has won no popularity contests, but the experiment has generated changes, such as the introduction of DVB-CSA.

Separable security: it remains a contentious battlefield, littered with casualties, competing claims and capital expenditures.

In comments submitted to the Federal Communications Commission, the NCTA contended that the industry "has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and given Herculean support to kick-start a retail marketplace (for set-tops with separable security)."

But some would beg to differ.

In a Broadband Reports posting last fall, industry gadfly Karl Bode blamed cable operators for their begrudging compliance with separable security mandates and the resultant dismal uptake of retail set-top boxes.

"The cable carriers don’t bother to advertise the CableCARD, so most American consumers (even technically savvy ones) have no idea they exist," wrote Bode in his article, "Cable Industry: Shucks, Guess Nobody Wants CableCARDS."

Without attempting a forensics exercise in what went wrong, where does the situation stand now?

According to founder and CEO of conditional access (CA) and middleware provider Latens Jeremy Thorp, the markets for set-tops and CA solutions are in "the most rapid period of change we’ve seen in the industry."

One change has been the addition of digital video broadcast (DVB)-CSA security to the mix. Common scrambling algorithm (CSA) allows an operator to have two or CA systems and not be tied into a monopoly situation, said Thorp.

DVB-CSA, also known as SimulCrypt, allows content to be scrambled once and then received and decoded by different CA providers.

And one big operator is supporting DVB-CSA to a certain extent.

Comcast DTAs

As part of its move to all-digital video service offerings, Comcast has been deploying digital terminal adapters (DTAs) for subscribers to use with secondary TV sets. Comcast is getting its DTAs from Motorola, Pace and Thomson, with a third yet officially un-named vendor to be added in 2010.

The Comcast DTAs can handle security from Motorola (SCTE-052 scrambling); Cisco (PowerKEY); and DVB (DVB-CSA), said Steve Reynolds, SVP, CPE and home networking, with Comcast.

Reynolds said Comcast requested DVB-CSA capability in its DTAs "to make sure it had the broadest appeal and economies of scale."

Although the DTAs have been built to Comcast specifications, the MSO doesn’t want them to be Comcast-only devices. Making sure they’re generally available and desirable to other operators does good things on the price curve, said Reynolds.

Evolution DTAs

Brent Smith, president of Evolution Digital takes some credit for the success of DTAs and the use of DVB security in them.

"We’re pioneers on the DTA side of things," he said.

A couple of years ago when the FCC mandated separable security, Smith saw an opportunity to take the DVB open standard used in much of the rest of the world and incorporate that into the North American market in a low-cost device with embedded security.

But Evolution had to apply for a separable security waiver for its DTA with limited capability. Evolution received the waiver in July 2009.

However, the FCC indicated in Evolution’s waiver that it would look favorably on Evolution’s DTA competitors if they requested similar waivers. And that appears to be the case.

"The Evolution order is now being used by everybody: Moto; Cisco; Thomson; Pace," said Smith.

Activating DTA security

When Comcast began deploying DTAs as part of its analog reclamation Project Cavalry (now re-named "The World of More") we were told that the devices had CA capability, but it wasn’t activated.

Now, Comcast is activating the security of its deployed DTAs. Reynolds said the latest version of DTAs, version 4, has software that can configure the security automatically and remotely.

Although the DTAs are used for secondary TV sets on the expanded basic tier, not all of their content is free-to-air. Comcast had to ensure that it honored its content protection agreements with programmers, although it would not elaborate on those arrangements.

As for Evolution, the company has sold approximately 300,000 DTAs and has two new products coming out: the Universal DTA can interoperate with Cisco, Moto or DVB systems. And Evolution has submitted a waiver for an HD-DTA with Conax security, which is based on DVB-CSA.

"The rest of the world has benefited from mistakes made in North America," said Smith, adding that European operators ensured that all CA suppliers could interoperate with each other.

Other noteworthy users of SimulCrypt in the United States include Massillon Cable and Cablevision. Massillon primarily uses Motorola’s security but can also use DVB-CSA with its Evolution DTAs. And Cablevision can descramble Cisco’s security and DVB-CSA security from NDS. EchoStar also uses SimulCrypt for security.

Next Step

In the almost two years since separable security was mandated for new set-top boxes, the biggest impact appears to have been on operators. With the option of using SimulCrypt, the old Motorola-Cisco CA juggernaut is losing its force.

But the primary intention for separable security was to benefit consumers, and that hasn’t really materialized. The vast majority of cable subscribers still lease their set-top boxes from their providers.

As part of its research in crafting a National Broadband Plan (due to be presented to Congress on March 17), the FCC is soliciting comments on how to better stimulate a retail market for set-tops.

"Operators are seeing the landscape change very quickly," said Latens’ Thorp. "They can see that in two to three years, they’re going to want to deliver content more over IP to more than just set-tops."

They may want to deliver cable content directly to TVs, PCs or mobile phones. In today’s world, that would require multiple CA systems.

-Linda Hardesty, associate editor, Communications Technology

Digital T&M and QoE

Whatever the combination of digital video technologies, quality of experience (QoE) is the word of the day. With competition and expectations both on the rise, ensuring that consumer QoE is high has become increasingly more important, even as it has become more difficult to achieve.

In fact, the Comcast Media Center has identified eight touch points where video quality should be measured: the content source, the master control facility, MPEG encoders and multiplexors, point of entry into CMC facilities where MPEG is encapsulated onto IP, interface with the IP delivery system, QAM devices, set-top box, and the consumer video display.

According to CMC VP Quality Assurance Dave Higgins, there are a lot of testing tools available today. Some measure delivery of content, whether the pipe is working, what types of impairments could be impacting video. The CMC also has a video processing grading system to determine HD delivery performance.

But he’d like it to do more.

"What that system doesn’t do is measure impacts downstream," Higgins said. "There is not a device out there per se that would allow us to plug video into it and give you a numerical rating or some kind of rating to tell you how good the video looks."

The CMC is looking for a device that would give it a real-time assessment of the impairments, by way of what Higgins termed a video mean opinion score (MOS).

Vendors are working towards this Holy Grail.

"I see an evolution where probes look at content, look at the TV set like a subscriber," Rob Flask, product line manager, JDSU communications T&M business segment, said. "Right now (they) are looking at things like frozen black screen, low and high audio, for gross errors."

Flask said that one goal is for the technology to evolve to the point where the testing equipment says, ‘the picture doesn’t look good.’

Still looking toward the future, Eric Conley, CEO, Mixed Signals, said MSOs also are asking for real-time 24/7 monitoring further out in their networks. "Pretty soon, we will be monitoring out to the customer premise and it will all be tied together in a unified view of the health of the entire network."

T&M tools, today

Testing tools are using MPEG transport stream standards (ETSI 101 290) and measurements to check metrics on pixelization, tiling, frozen video and missing audio tracks, beginning at the content source.

"If there is a problem, which does happen from time to time whether it be a faulty camera or compression equipment, (the MSO) would want to know before it gets to millions of customers," Frances Edgington, vice president HEYS Professional Services, said.

An MPEG transport stream analyzer can be used at several points throughout the transmission network, including at the headend and wherever there is a switch or edge router.

"You want to test (content) before it is turned back into an ASI stream and sent to the edge QAM," Trilithic Product Manager Thomas Powell said. "You want to verify content before it is sent to customers to know it is good. (An MPEG transport stream) product will help them at least at hubs, to identify whether or not the content is a problem or if it is a true RF issue," Powell said.

Whereas older tools dealt with things like packet loss and jitter, those may not be the biggest problems in the network. "It is the manipulation of video at the MPEG layer at the edge," Ron Shanks, director of marketing, JDSU communications T&M business segment, said.

Over the edge

Operators must aggregate and transcode video close to where they distribute it via QAM streams into neighborhoods or nodes. All of which adds up to a challenge.

"Different formats, different compression techniques, different issues…make testing at the edge more difficult to monitor and troubleshoot," Flask said.

Problems stem from program clock reference (PCR) timing issues and multiplexing. "It is a challenge for us, how to do those types of measurements on a broad scale and measure all programs at all times for these parameters," JDSU’s Shanks said, adding that flexibility matters.

Shanks said JDSU’s MVP-200 MPEG Video Probe is a "hybrid network analyzer in probe form" that can monitor 24/7 or troubleshoot.

Likewise, Trilithic’s Faultline MPEG Analysis Suite, is software based.

"If (it) is on a server class machine and you need to go to a hub site, you can install it on a laptop and use the security dongle," Powell said. The analyzer can monitor 1024 streams per second and costs less than $6000 per software license.

SDV, VOD

Testing and monitoring have also advanced in the realm of SDV and VOD, which bring their own challenges.

With the former, each individual makes a request for a channel. "ESPN doesn’t stay on the same RF frequency. It is dynamic," Calvin Harrison, IneoQuest VP business development, said, noting that VOD offers similar circumstances.

"MSOs haven’t had a good way of tracking when the request was made, did it play," Harrison said. His company’s IQ Dialogue SDV server probes monitor transactions between set-top box, SDV server, edge resource manager and edge QAM.

"We sit in the middle of that watching, storing, and capturing all communications," he said.

Audio angst

On the audio side, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act in the fall and referred it to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in December.

The legislation calls for service providers to be fined for loud audio, a common problem as volume levels can vary depending on the channel, program and particularly commercial.

"Companies are trying to get ahead of this. If they know they have to find a solution, they figure they better do it on their own terms," Mixed Signals’ Conley said.

The idea is to measure and monitor volume against the dial norm, and send an alarm if something crosses the threshold for more than a certain period of time, Conley said.

Mixed Signals has a software upgrade that will support the ITU-R BS.1770 audio specification. "The end fix is to re-encode,"Conley said.

– Monta Hernon

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