Next July 1, the cable industry will reach an intersection in its development path where it will encounter a sign conceived, designed and deployed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Remove all conditional access from your set-tops. From this point on, you must have separable and renewable security and make that available to your subscribers who buy digital cable-ready (DCR) TV sets.

As with most government mandates, this one took 10 years to evolve and arrived about five years late, missing the changes in digital technology, the explosion of inexpensive and flexible downloadable software and the competitive changes that have rearranged the cable landscape as satellite and telcos added a serious threat to the once-bulletproof cable video entertainment delivery process.

Nevertheless, it’s the law, and the industry will comply by only buying set-tops with CableCard (formerly point of deployment or POD) device slots. Anything that cable operators purchased before the deadline, anything that’s deployed in the field or ready to be reconditioned, can continue to be used without meeting the renewable security demand for the life of the product.

The industry will make CableCards available to subscribers who purchase DCR appliances and probably those who request set-tops with built-in slots, but it won’t go out of its way to encourage the use of decade-old solutions to next-decade problems. Cable will also continue down its path toward renewable security, the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP) and its companion Downloadable Conditional Access System (DCAS). The retail play Part of the government’s not-so-hidden agenda is to encourage cable to make its products available at retail. That probably won’t happen July 1.

“Just because we put CableCards in our boxes does not necessarily mean retail is enabled,” says Dallas Clement, senior vice president of strategy and development at Cox Communications. “There’s a lot of other work to do to enable retail in addition to just putting a CableCard on a set-top box.”

The CableCard is a cumbersome device that really doesn’t do much more than remove the conditional access already included in boxes built by the industry’s vendor duopoly—Motorola and Scientific Atlanta, now a part of Cisco Systems—and put it on a PCMCIA-like card that can be inserted into next-gen boxes and DCR appliances.

The first CableCards come in two flavors. First, a basic and unattractive single stream card that enables digital TV sets to descramble cable’s conditional access and receive authorized programming. These cards are simply conditional access decoding devices that separate the access from the cable features. But if you want a program guide, video-on-demand (VOD), a personal video recorder (PVR) or any of the other goodies that cable offers, you have to use a set-top box or wait for the second flavor: a two-way capable multi-stream card that that can handle multiple streams of content and interface with what are probably next generation consumer appliances, as well.

“CableCard, even though it does accomplish all the things they (FCC) want it to accomplish, costs a lot and doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s a short-term solution. The cable guys realize it’s not very cost-effective,” says Chris Dinallo, vice president of technology at Pace Micro Technology Americas. The multi-stream problem Part of the problem is that while the CableCard is multi-stream-enabled, most, if not all, appliances are not. At this point, for instance, there is only one two-way CableCARD TV set on the market. The arrival of two-way furthermore spells both progress and confusion.

“Today’s CableCard you’ll be able to put in a two-way device, but you won’t be able to put a two-way CableCard into a one-way device and make it two-way,” Clement says. “It’s really an inefficient technology, an antiquated solution.”

There is a pretty good possibility that come July 1 there will be some “cable-ready TV” perplexity in the consumer electronics market that has very little to do with the actual technology and very much to do with the way that technology is positioned. Some of this confusion can be alleviated if consumers do something that’s become increasingly rare: read the warning labels.

“There’s supposed to be pre-sale material publicly displayed,” says Clement. “There’s absolutely post-sale information and instruction manuals and things like that.”

Besides that, both retailers and cable operators have new-found mutual respect and are working to make sure that a consumer who buys a high-end TV set doesn’t expect the CableCard to work miracles. The last step Finally, Clement says, “a customer still has to call us to provision a CableCard service, and when they do, we’re absolutely clear in explaining to them what it does do (and) what it doesn’t do so they’re not surprised when we roll a truck and they don’t get the service they had wanted.”

There’s possibly, even likely, a little spite involved in this whole situation. The FCC hasn’t placed the same requirements on cable’s satellite and telco competitors.

“When I step back and look at it, I say, ‘Boy, the cable guys are getting a raw deal here,’” says Dinallo.

On the other hand, past cable experiences with consumer electronics probably led to this, and the wounds are unlikely to heal as ongoing compatibility and signage issues with the CE guys—certainly not blameless themselves—crop up this coming summer.

Spite aside, the mandate is clearly onerous for cable because there is a “cost disadvantage relative to embedded set-tops with CableCards,” says Greg Vaeth, director of licensing and privacy at Motorola. “The cable operator has to buy the card and the set-top, and the host manufacturers have to put that CableCard interface into their box. The holy grail is getting to the point where you don’t have as large a hardware version.” DCAS and OCAP CableCard is just an intersection through which the industry must drive as it motors down the road to DCAS and OCAP, two acronyms that ultimately spell retail and home networks.

DCAS is probably the 21st Century version of what the FCC actually wants; it’s just not quite ready and probably won’t be for another two or more years. It entails downloading conditional access (CA) and other features to a secure chip that’s embedded in an end device so “you no longer have that headache of a separate card,” Vaeth says.

Until DCAS becomes available, however, there is likely to be confusion in the industry, in the government, across the retail space and among the consumer electronics players. The growing momentum behind OCAP, another prong of CableLabs’ OpenCable initiative, may further amplify that confusion among some of those stakeholders.

“Today you have to pull that secure chip out of the set-top and put it into place and interface with a PC-format CableCard,” says Vaeth, summarizing the new security regime.

The thrust of OCAP, however, has been to port all the cable applications to a middleware platform and then require devices that attach to that platform to run on certified specifications. “A lot of people tied CableCard to OCAP, and that’s not a true statement,” says Dinallo.

CableCard, says Clement, “doesn’t advance the ball on enabling retail.” What does? In cable’s game plan, it’s the compelling applications that OCAP enables that will eventually put points on the board in cable’s retail game.

But the CableCard and OCAP time tables are unlikely to overlap. “We’ll try to port all our apps to OCAP,” says Clement. “That work is ongoing. It won’t be ready by July 1, 2007.” The retail play It’s not that the industry doesn’t want consumers going to retail and buying products—which gets inventory out of cable operators’ warehouses—it’s that cable operators want to make sure everything works together within the subscriber home so the customer “gets the Cox experience,” says Clement. “We’d just as soon have people go into a retail store and make purchase decisions based on support of MSO apps.”

OCAP encourages third-party applications developers to build apps that work across cable platforms. That, in turn, gives cable a competitive differentiator, Clement admits.

“They’re going to bring interesting applications, and someone says, ‘You have all this great stuff; why would I ever do IPTV? You have OCAP. You have all these interesting things on the U.S. cable platform,’” Clement says.

That’s not going to happen when the requirement kicks in that the industry deliver separable and renewable security via an outdated, expensive and cumbersome method that might have looked good 10 years ago when it was first conceived. How customers respond next summer is a matter of some concern to the industry. The POD experience The first generation versions of separable security (then known as POD modules) have been available since July 2000. “There hasn’t been a huge demand for them at this point,” says Bill Wall, technical director of subscriber networks at Scientific-Atlanta bold?.

That’s because they’re an interim step, a directional signal installed by the FCC.

They “don’t offer the advantages that you get with digital set-tops: on-demand and rich guides and other things that are coming along,” says Wall. “There are more PODs out there than there are people hooked up to digital cable-ready TVs.” (See sidebar “From CNET Reviews” for some early consumer reactions to CableCards and DCR TV sets.)

CableCards, too, will be expected to work with digital cable-ready TV sets; the government says it has to happen.

“We clearly have to meet the FCC goals for separable security, and we clearly believe that DCAS is the most cost-effective way to do that,” Wall says. “We’re well down the path to being able to implement that. We’re going down the path of separable security, first with CableCards and then hopefully with DCAS after that.” Jim Barthold is a contributing editor to Communications Technology. Reach him at Sidebar From CNET Reviews Two years ago, Executive Editor of CNET Reviews David Carnoy posted a story titled “Five reasons not to buy an HDTV with CableCard.” The story naturally focused on first generation technology, so it’s dated, but it’s still up there and has generated more than 100 responses. His five reasons (with our commentary):
• “No video on demand (VOD) or electronic program guide (EPG).” True enough, that’s the first-generation, one-way CableCards.
• “You very well may get a DVR anyway.” In other words, you might just want a box. Yes, indeed, especially an HD-DVR.
• “CableCard-equipped sets are more expensive—for now.” Prices of all high-end TV sets are moving targets. Check your weekend flyers.
• “It’s kinky.” As in troublesome. Agreed: see CableCard FAQs in the next sidebar.
• “It’s obsolete.” Again, agreed. See the opening of this article.

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