Downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) technology has garnered great interest since 2000.

Its deployment, however, has shifted outward. Two and a half years ago, industry leaders told the Federal Communications Commission to expect a nationwide rollout by July 1, 2008. Then, in requesting a waiver on last summer’s "integration ban," the industry said it would happen no later than Dec. 31, 2009.

The economics of DCAS – distinguished by the use of a secure microchip rather than proprietary CA or CableCards – are compelling. With savings originally estimated at between $50 and $90 per set-top box, this project made sense. The technology has been demonstrated. So why has so little happened?

The short answer is that the FCC denied the industry’s request for a waiver on integrated security. Such a denial, contended industry lawyers in August 2006, "would dramatically slow progress on DCAS." That has certainly happened.

A longer answer involves cable’s history with CA.

American cable ops mostly use proprietary CA from Motorola or Cisco Systems/Scientific Atlanta.

There have been a handful of exceptions. In 1999, MediaOne deployed a multi-vendor solution that included a CA system from Canal+ (now Nagravision) in Jacksonville, FL and Roseville, MN.

While not completely open, those deployments broke with the past. But as they approached reliability and efficiency, MediaOne reverted to the status quo.

Why? A common explanation points to AT&T Broadband’s acquisition of MediaOne in June 2000. Insiders with long memories, however, point to the persuasive powers of the incumbent provider.

Other CA options over the years have included:

• Harmony, a short-lived S-A/Motorola collaboration
• Cablevision’s deployment of CA from NDS
• CableCards, for FCC-mandated removable security
• Open CAS, paralleling MediaOne’s experience
• Sony’s Passage, which several MSOs tested
• S-A’s Overlay technology

Among these, only CableCards have advanced industry-wide. Beyond their regulatory fit, they addressed an incumbent’s technical preference that a descrambler and key exchanger exist on the same chip.

As for DCAS, while there appears to be a race among multiple vendors claiming to have solutions (see Table 1), sources close to this politically sensitive topic describe the actual progress as extremely slow. None of the solutions in Table 1, however, address all the original DCAS requirements, which include secure micro, scalability and middleware. Whither PolyCipher? PolyCipher, in particular, has been plagued with obstacles. Insiders say that total expenditures by the Comcast, Time Warner and Cox joint venture exceed $50 million, but that the project no longer enjoys the support of all three partners and that the downsized staff is insufficient to carry out its mission.

What accounts for the stalling, if not downfall, of PolyCipher? One explanation is insufficient vendor support of PolyCipher’s DCAS 1.0, followed by DCAS 2.0, which upped the processing power requirement by an order of magnitude and increased costs fivefold, to between $10 and $20 per chip.

Meanwhile, as cost structures apparently ballooned, Cisco and Motorola introduced forward-compatible DCAS solutions to go along with their existing (and costly) CableCard solutions. Which leads to the observation that the more CA changes in this industry, the more it seems to stay the same. Bruce Bahlmann is an independent research analyst. Reach him at scifilvralways@yahoo.com.

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