Consensus Eludes Video Security Group

A Federal Communications Commission-appointed group tasked with recommending a successor to the CableCard has less than a month to file its report, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that the group will have a tough time producing a unified proposal.

That much was clear during last Tuesday’s (Aug. 4) all-day meeting of the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC), a group formed in January after the passing of the STELAR Act, legislation that will sunset the current set-top security integration ban in December and calls on the FCC to pursue a downloadable alternative. The DSTAC must file its recommendations to the FCC by Sept. 4.

Last week’s gathering centered on multiple technology proposals that attempt to establish platform-neutral video security approaches to support third-party retail devices and work with various multichannel video programming distributors, including cable operators, telcos and satellite-TV providers. The group has had trouble agreeing on a common system that can apply to all MVPDs while taking into account a multitude of legacy platforms, as well as newer IPbased delivery systems.

On the IP side two proposals have been pushed forward. One, presented by Public Knowledge, centers on the concept of a cloud-based “virtual headend,” where the heavy lifting would be done before encrypted content is delivered to a third-party set-top or other type of video device.

Although IP is a potential common thread, not all MVPDs are using IP to deliver video to the home — cable operators, for example, still rely on QAM/MPEG-based transport systems, while satellite-TV operators still lean heavily on non- IP, one-way systems to deliver video.

To address this legacy issue, the proposal also discusses the use of a discrete device that would essentially convert the legacy signal into a secure IP-based transport stream that could be viewed by retail devices. That approach appears to be a revival of an “AllVid” proposal that the cable industry has previously argued against, saying it forces the disaggregation of MVPD services.

That approach is not “terribly different” than what some MVPDs use today, Adam Goldberg, principal with AGP LLC/Public Knowledge, said, noting that satellite-TV providers already employ link protection in the home.

A second proposal, which appears to be the one endorsed by more traditional MVPDs, is app-based, centered on Web-based platforms and standards where content can be delivered over HTML-5 with Encrypted Media Extensions (EME). In those scenarios, a gateway could convert the video and associated content to run on the home network to smart TVs and other types of video clients. The cable industry has been pursuing such an approach with VidiPath, a system that delivers video-over-IP securely on the home network, while still supporting the MVPD’s interface. Another example is DirecTV and its use of a technology called RVU.

Paul Glist, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine who counts CableLabs and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association among his clients, spoke on behalf of the apps- based approach, noting that the apps are “already written and expanding rapidly” and have been made to work with a wide range of retail devices.

Dr. Joseph Weber, chief technical officer for TiVo’s service provider business unit, countered that the app-centric approach merely maintains the MVPDs’ interfaces and does not provide a path for competitive UIs.

Despite the multiple proposals, there appears to be consensus that any CableCard successor should attempt to coalesce around IP-based delivery. The problem is the difficulty in making such systems retroactively interoperable with older systems.

And while large MVPDs such as Comcast, Cox Communications and Charter Communications are shifting to IP-based video delivery, such migrations are not economically feasible to smaller operators that don’t have the same access to the capital and engineering resources necessary to pull it off. That in itself seems to challenge the project’s directive of developing a successor to the CableCard that is not “unduly burdensome.”

The FCC has yet to decide how it might proceed, and whether a next step involves a Notice of Inquiry or a full-blown Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.