The deadline for the separable security mandate is just around the corner, but as Comcast‘s Charlie Kennamer said during a panel yesterday, if you don’t know what it is you should be doing to meet the deadline, you probably should be home working on it instead of attending Expo.

The "7/’07 Separable Security Mandate and OCAP Plans" session detailed some of the growing pains of installing set-top boxes with removable CableCards. As Kennamer noted, the FCC mandate doesn’t benefit the consumers while taking a bite out of cable operators’ bottom lines.

"One of the goals, clearly, was to make this as seamless as possible for Comcast and its customers," said Kennamer, who is VP of engineering, standards and industry affairs. "It’s not possible to do this without it having some impact."

Comcast has been aggressive this year moving analog channels to digital in the markets where it has deployed digital simulcast, but Kennamer said even the low-end boxes have increased in price. Comcast is looking at other set-top boxes by other vendors, but is deploying CableCard-enabled set-top boxes from Motorola and Scientific Atlanta for now.

Both Kennamer and Charter‘s Bob Blackburn, senior director, digital video engineering, said they’re getting the boxes with CableCards pre-installed from the vendors. The boxes are also coming with covers over the CableCard slots to prevent both the cards from falling out during shipping and, hopefully, to keep customers from pulling the cards out themselves.

"Our current plan is to not take the cards out in the field or in the warehouse," Kennamer said. "If there’s a problem, we’ll just send the whole thing back."

Comcast and Charter are endeavoring to keep each set-top box and its CableCard together over the lifecycle of the set-top box.

"It’s taking longer in the warehouse even with the CableCards already in," Kennamer said. "The bar code scanning takes longer now. It’s only 10 seconds or so, but that adds up when you’re doing a million boxes. It’s also been a little painful getting them on to the billing side."

Blackburn illustrated the additional complexities of the new set-top boxes by showing the bar codes. Previously, a Scientific Atlanta set-top box had three bar codes to scan, but now there are five.

"Some of the bar codes we’re not using," Blackburn said. "We’re not using the OCAP bar code yet, but we decided to capture them and put them into billing now."

The Motorola set-top boxes also include a Host ID that is added into the billing system, which Blackburn said would help Charter determine if a CableCard has been moved from its initial set-top box to another one.

Blackburn said the high-end set-top boxes cost 70 percent to 75 percent more. Along with the additional cost of the boxes, cable operators have also had to spend considerable time and effort on DAC and DNC upgrades, new billing releases, and fixing inventory systems to track both the box and CableCard as a single unit.

Charter was successful in gaining a waiver from the FCC on its low-end set-top boxes, but a similar request by Comcast was turned down earlier this year.

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