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Tension Builds Around Downloadable Security

The FCC’s pursuit of a successor to the CableCARD (pictured) is morphing into a tension-filled affair as a group comprised of MVPDs, vendors and industry organizations issued a lengthy letter outlining concerns they have about the scope, direction and “policy detours” being made by a Commission-appointed committee that is tasked with providing recommendations that will aid the FCC’s pursuit of a new downloadable video security system that would apply to cable operators, telcos and satellite TV service providers and endeavor to spark a vibrant retail market for set-tops and other video devices.

Meanwhile, TiVo, which is on the committee and a company that has a big stake in the outcome, issued a statement of its own, calling the letter an “inappropriate attempt by incumbents to pre-judge the outcome of the technical working group and infect the process with non-technical policy arguments that have been addressed in prior FCC proceedings.”

The DSTAC, comprised of 18 individuals, was formed in Januaryafter the STELAR Act became law in December 2014, activating a provision that will sunset the FCC’s current ban on set-tops with integrated security after a year. The DSTAC is slated to file its recommendations to the FCC by September 4. The next DSTAC meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 21.

The letter -- dated April 10 and addressed to Cheryl Tritt of Wilkinson, Barker, Knauer, the chair of the Downloadable Security Advisory Committee (DSTAC) -- complained that the committee “is veering into areas that are well outside its statutorily-defined charter,” and being “diverted toward proposals that would hinder the ability of consumers to access MVPD and online video services on their growing number of devices.”

The letter argues that the DSTAC is being steered into developing a method by which an MVPD’s retail offering would be “disassembled into individual piece parts” that a retail device maker could then selectively reassemble into a new configuration and service.

“From the very first meeting, working group deliberations were nearly derailed by a staff directive that the DSTAC “committee shall develop” a means to disaggregate service even if participants believe that those features should not be mandatory,” the letter claimed.

They are also concerned about how the DSTAC discussions are emphasizing a new “box” that would conceivably disassemble MVPD service into outputs that a device maker could rearrange, combine and overlay with its own UI.

They also claim that FCC staff has proposed the DSTAC to define “non-security APIs,” to access these piece parts of the service, that, in the group’s estimation “is beyond the DSTAC’s well-defined ‘downloadable security’ mission” that could “raise significant contract and copyright issues.”

Those proposals, they argued, “hark back to the ‘AllVid’ concept,” whereby pay-TV providers would need to deploy a separate adapter that would “enable a retail device to disassemble a provider’s retail subscription service for reassembly into a new service for commercial exploitation.” Further, they believe a new AllVid-like approach would preclude many consumers from receiving MVPD and online video services directly via secure downloadable IP apps on devices such as smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles. The FCC initially asked for feedback on the AllVid idea in 2010, but has not acted on the proposal. Amid growing concerns about the notion of a “black box,” the Commission directed the DSTAC at the March 30 meeting not to focus on implementations yet, but to instead sort out the technical requirements. 

“Resurrecting AllVid variants here is already needlessly bogging the DSTAC’s deliberations in controversy…” the group wrote, urging that the committee avoid such “policy detours” as the group builds its recommendations.

The group also railed against some interest in directing the DSTAC to use CableCARD as “starting point” for its work, despite the fact that distributors such as Dish Network, DirecTV and telcos that rely on IPTV, such as AT&T, never used the security module, and that the market is migrating to video apps that work independent of the CableCARD.

TiVo, meanwhile, said the letter “ignores the statutory reference to a ‘platform neutral’ solution and omits the statute’s reference to Section 629 as the underlying purpose of the working group which is to create a competitive retail navigation device market.”

TiVo added that the MVPDs involved in the letter (see below for more detail) are “trying to use the technical working group to try to turn back the clock and limit retail devices only to carrying MVPD apps,” holding that it would also extend their control over the interface, and prohibit retail devices from providing "fair use" competitive functionality such as DVR, side loading, and out of home streaming.

Matthew Zinn, TiVo’s SVP, general counsel and chief privacy officer, said the process has not yet reached the policy-making stage, so the group should instead focus on identifying possible technical solutions.

As for some of the issues addressed in the letter, he said TiVo has been able to apply its own UI while supporting the underlying copyright issues.

UPDATE: As for the disaggregation concerns addressed in the letter, TiVo also disagrees with assertions that elements such as weather apps and caller ID to the TV should be included in the definition of the cable service. Zinn said the FCC’s definition of cable service in this instance is all about programming, and shouldn’t be part of the DSTAC discussion, anyway.

“Those are issues that shouldn’t be debated in a technology advisory group,” he said. “They can be policy and regulatory issues that can be debated at a later time.  

The letter to Tritt (and copied to all DSTAC members) was signed by the following:

- American Cable Association, Patrick Murphy and Jason Hansen

- ARRIS Group,  Bruce McClelland (DSTAC member)

- AT&T, Dr. Ahmad Ansari (DSTAC member)

- Bright House Networks, Jeff Chen

- Cable Television Laboratories, Ralph Brown

- Cablevision Systems Corporation, Bob Clyne (DSTAC member)

- Charter Communications, Jay Rolls (DSTAC member)

- Cisco Systems, Edmond Shapiro

- Comcast, Mark Hess (DSTAC member)

- Cox Communications, Steve Watkins

- DirecTV, Steve Dulac

- Dish Network, John Card II (DSTAC member)

- Evolution Digital,Brent Smith (DSTAC member)

- Motion Picture Association of America, John McCoskey (DSTAC member)

- National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Andy Scott

- Time Warner Cable, Kevin Leddy

- Verimatrix, Petr Peterka

- Verizon Communications, David Young

Other members of the DSTAC include Brant Candelore of Sony; Matthew Clark of Amazon; Adam Goldberg, Public Knowledge;  Brad Love, Hauppauge; Kenneth Lowe, Vizio; Milo Medin, Google; Alan Messer, Samsung; Simha Sethumadhavan, Columbia University; Dr. Joseph Weber, TiVo; and Robin Wilson, Nagra.

For past coverage on the DSTAC, please see:

-CableCARD Successor Inches Ahead

-FCC Group Starts To Seek CableCARD's Successor

-‘Black Box’ Talk Dominates FCC’s First DSTAC Meeting