Onward, DCAS

Tue, 01/31/2006 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Editor in Chief

The cable industry's downloadable conditional access (DCAS) effort appeared to take a big leap forward late last year following an important filing to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

This DCAS project has been in the making for some time, but the filing from the National Cable & Television Association (NCTA) on Nov. 30, 2005, shed much more light on the progress being made. The U.S. cable industry hopes the report, coupled with some recent demonstrations, will gain favor with the FCC in terms of determining a long-term replacement for the existing CableCARD.

In addition to replacing the CableCARD long-term, there are other potential benefits to DCAS. For starters, DCAS should also all but eliminate the conditional access duopoly that exists today, since most cable systems base their digital systems on either Motorola's Digicipher platform of Scientific-Atlanta Inc.'s PowerKEY scheme. To a lesser extent, cable operators, most notably Cablevision Systems Corp., is employing NDS Group's VideoGuard.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The proposed DCAS architecture. Source: NCTA

In the filing, the cable industry made it clear that its earlier work with DCAS has shown much promise. On top of that, the industry also notified the world that it is more than willing to move away from the CableCARD, a removable access platform that is deemed much more expensive and less elegant than the downloadable version that the industry is proposing.

"We are pleased to report that downloadable security is a feasible Conditional Access ("CA") approach, that it is preferable to the existing separate security configuration, and that the cable industry will commit to its implementation for its own devices and those purchased at retail," the report notes.

The DCAS Timeline

But how quickly can the industry pull DCAS together? According to the filing the industry said it expects to rollout DCAS nationwide by July 1, 2008.

At last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Time Warner Cable Senior Vice President of Advanced Engineering & Technology Mike Hayashi elaborated even further. He said expectations, at least from Time Warner Cable's standpoint, is to start field implementations of DCAS toward the end of 2006, position plant for a larger rollout in 2007, and extend DCAS nationwide by 2008.

But there's plenty of work ahead in terms of getting from here to there.

For starters, the system under the proposal will employ a secure microprocessor. Those microprocessors, to be installed in digital televisions and set-tops, will also support a secure bootloader that will receive the "keys" and other important components of the CA system.

The industry is also moving ahead on a keying facility. According to the report, the cable industry has already selected a vendor for the DCAS keying facility, and has hired project specialists to develop the secure boot loader layer for a prototype DCAS chip and the test application and tools for conditional access integration. Relationships for this part of the business is under development by CableLabs and the MSO-led NGNA (Next Generation Network Architecture) LLC organization.

According to the filing, construction on the keying facility will begin in Q1 2006, and go online in Q3 2006.

"They've just identified a need," said one CA vendor in reference to the keying facility. "It will have to be a secure building, a record-keeping facility. It's something that no one in U.S. cable has done." In fact, until the DCAS project came about, the CA vendors took care of this element, and provided the necessary indemnification in case anyone was smart enough to defeat the conditional access system.

The report also outlined some details related to chip development. The Phase I chip, already developed, is being used for testing and development of network components. Although not disclosed in the filing, it's known that Infineon Technologies is one if not the only supplier of the Phase I chip.

A Phase II ASIC chip will be required for the final version of DCAS. Development on that chipset is underway, with completion expected in Q3 2007. It's also expected that the cable industry will seek multiple sources for the Phase II chips, so that they don't fall into a locked position as they did with S-A and Motorola.

From there, completion of the network components for the DCAS architecture are expected by Q4, 2007, with testing of retail and leased devices by Q1 2008.

The filing acknowledged that "considerable work" lay ahead before a commercially viable DCAS solution is ready. However, the filing stressed that operators serving 85 percent of the cable subs in the U.S. are committed to implementing DCAS for its own devices as well as those sold via retail.

In addition to the filing, the cable industry also followed up with its latest demonstration of the technology. The demo showed an S-A set-top using DCAS to operate on a Motorola Digicipher network. A Motorola box was then shown to use DCAS on a PowerKEY-based network. Samsung also showed off a set-top tagged for retail that loaded up a CA system from NDS. This followed a separate demo in July 2005, which teamed S-A, Motorola and Nagravision, another CA vendor.

Another element of DCAS that is important but does not get mentioned as much is the DOCSIS Set-top Gateway (DSG) platform. DSG, a CableLabs specification, enlists in-band DOCSIS (rather than proprietary out-of-band signaling) to deliver information to the set-top box. This information can include electronic program guide data, streaming media, or in the case of DCAS, the keys required to authorize service.

Open up

Although Comcast and Motorola have formed a joint venture that will result in "next-generation" CA technologies based on Mediacipher, one goal of the DCAS project is to open up the network to other CA vendors. According to sources, the Comcast-Motorola J.V. is presently seeking a CEO and is in the process of interviewing prospects.

"No specific CA is initially included in the Host device," the report notes. The "host" refers to the digital set-top or television. "When the set-top or retail Host connects to a network with DCAS, that network's CA client is securely downloaded to the customer device."

Because it's "removable" in the sense that it can be swapped out like the existing CableCARD approach, the downloadable version is also designed to support a retail model, and ensure that the devices will operate on all manner of digital cable neteworks in the United States. "When the device is moved to a different network, the special chip downloads the new CA," notes the report. DCAS "is likely to facilitate the development of a competitive navigation device market," it adds.

Unlike today's deployed CableCARD platform (the module and hosts), which supports only unidirectional services, DCAS should support two-way digital cable services right off the bat, meaning the television or set-top will be able to handle premium services, video-on-demand, and interactive program guides.

"From the perspective of the manufacturers of host devices that can be sold at retail, DCAS eliminates the need for a CableCARD interface and the logistics of obtaining and installing a CableCARD," the report explains.

The cable industry is expected to file follow up DCAS comments on February 6, 2006.

Too much?

Despite the results DCAS is shooting for, the project isn't without its critics. Some on the CA field wonder whether the cable industry is biting off more than it can chew.

"The document made it sound more mature than what I expect it is," notes one industry observer close to DCAS developments. "There's still a lot of grunt work that needs to be done," including business work, setting up companies, hiring staff, setting up processes, and, of course, the building the keying facility itself. "Conditional access can be a management nightmare. [The cable industry] is exchanging highly confidential information that [CA] companies usually take inside."

But that hasn't stopped some key companies in the consumer electronics field from stepping up in support of the DCAS project.

On the date of the filing, CableLabs announced Samsung Electronics as the first to sign on the dotted line for a DCAS license. In early January, LG Electronics followed up as the second.

In concert with that, LG paired up with Comcast and Nagravision at the Consumer Electronics Show to conduct what they called the "first public demonstration" of DCAS.

In an earlier interview, Jud Cary, the deputy general counsel at CableLabs, noted that the DCAS agreement is similar to the CableCARD Host Interface Licensing Agreement (CHILA), but that it also accounted for the newer downloadable technology.


Keyed up

Here are some important dates and milestones referenced in NCTA's Nov. 30, 2005 filing with the FCC:

  • A national rollout of DCAS by July 1, 2008
  • Q2 2006: Construction to begin on DCAS keying facility; facility to be online by Q3 2006
  • Phase II ASIC chip completion by Q3 2007.
  • Completion of DCAS network architecture components by Q4 2007; testing of retail and leased devices by Q1 2008.

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