What the Charter Waiver Means to Cable

Once upon a time, consumer-electronics companies wanted to sell digital TVs that were “cable ready.” That means one attaches the TV to power and cable, and it works. No set-top required.

Federal regulation ensued, which brought us the “CableCard” — an expensive, removable form of security that could ostensibly be slipped into TV sets, thus making them “cable ready.”

As a federal law, it caused the cable industry to completely retool how it buys, warehouses and installs set-tops. Only cable, mind you. Not satellite video (too new to market); not telco video (not in market yet, at the time).

As of January, the count of cable set-tops outfitted with a CableCard to secure video content stood at 39 million. At about $50 apiece, not including the box built with the CableCard slot.

Meanwhile, the consumer-electronics industry completely stopped building TVs with CableCard slots a few years ago.

Last Monday (April 20), something momentous happened: The Federal Communications Commission granted a waiver, requested by Charter Communications, to do set-tops without CableCards.

Part of what makes this topic confusing, on the surface, is the language. Double negatives lurk everywhere. Example, from a recent batch of notes: “Charter is no longer banned from not using removable security modules in the boxes it deploys to secure subscription video services.”

Remove the double negatives, and you get this: Charter can now deploy boxes with built-in security. Which means we’re back to integrated security, at least for the two years the FCC gave Charter to make it happen.

The technologies involved in the Charter approach are blessedly visual: Key ladders. Roots of trust. It’s all about electronically establishing trust between devices and operators, so that a device’s “security personality” can be downloaded into it.

Charter agreed to make its approach royalty-free and available for commodity-grade chips, so that chip and device makers can get on board.

That’s (way) different from the last time around this block, when cable operators (specifically Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox) stood up an entity called PolyCipher, to make the secure microprocessors that would do an early version of downlodable conditional access, or DCAS. The Denver-based company quietly folded in 2009.

What does the Charter waiver mean for cable? It doesn’t exactly put a fork in CableCards — anything fielded needs to be maintained, and Charter committed to simulcrypt legacy security, to keep supporting CableCards. It does means that the FCC at least tacitly agrees that the CableCard chapter didn’t work.

Better, it means that the door is now open to work out “next generation security” in the open marketplace — not under a federal microscope.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis attranslation-please.com or multichannel.com/blog.