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The fragmented world of DRM

Fri, 03/02/2012 - 7:49pm
By Mike Robuck, Senior Editor

Digital rights management is enabling TV Everywhere, but there are too many flavors.

David PurdyAs evidenced by this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, TV Everywhere has gone primetime with the masses, but getting that video content onto any device, anywhere, anytime is creating operational headaches for cable operators.

The old tried-and-true world of conditional access systems (CAS) on set-top boxes is slowly being replaced by a free-for-all world of digital rights management (DRM) on different devices, which leaves video service providers scrambling to keep pace with the various flavors of DRM. While the rigid duopoly world of conditional access is hardwarebased, digital rights management systems encrypt content with software before delivering it down to a consumer’s device for descrambling.

It’s great to deliver all of the video content to all of those devices – PCs, Macs, game consoles, Android devices, iOS devices, Blu-ray players and connected TVs – but the DRM world is fragmented by the lack of standards and the plethora of DRM technologies being used.

“You struggle the best you can,” said David Purdy, vice president of video products at Rogers Communications. “Each platform, each studio seems to have a different set of requirements, and it is a challenge for us. You try to deliver on a TV anywhere strategy and make sure all of your content is available on all of the devices, but it is a challenge. We’re working hard to make sure we can keep up with the expectations. Commercial DRM is a critical piece to being able to deliver on a TV anywhere strategy.

D'Arcy Hunt“We’ve deployed some DRM that is no longer considered acceptable, so we’ve had to upgrade our DRM, or make commitments to upgrade our DRM, on various platforms. It is a challenge trying to know which DRMs are acceptable, and which DRMs will ultimately win out is a bit of guesswork. It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it.”

Rogers ’ D’Arcy Hunt, senior director of video product management, said the Canadian cable operator has used DRM offerings from Brightcove and Microsoft’s Silverlight in the past, but the goal now is to narrow down the field of DRMs.

Hunt said that on the mobile and broadband platform, Rogers is in the middle of implementing content and digital rights management (CDRM) from Irdeto, depending on the content player.

“There’s still content going out in the Brightcove and Silverlight DRMs, but we’re trying to move to a unified commercial DRM across all content and devices,” he said. “There are so many different standards in trying to manage DRMs on each platform that it’s cryptic, and the studio requirements change quite often.”

Cox Communications is using NDS Group’s VideoGuard Connect DRM system for its IP-based live streaming iPad app, which is called Cox TV Connect.

Lisa Pickelsimer“There are a lot of DRMs out there, and in some respects, it does pose a challenge for us to the extent that we want to provide content to these different devices,” said Cox’s Lisa Pickelsimer, executive director of video product development. “Our objective and desire is to satisfy our customers and allow them to have access to content anywhere, on any device that they choose. That is our desire.

“Having said that, there is a real cost associated with supporting multiple formats, in particular multiple DRMs, because what it essentially means is we have to have different versions of the same content encrypted with the different DRMs – and potentially content resolutions, as well, depending on the device. So there’s clearly a development cost for us, but there’s also an equipment or storage cost in terms of housing all of that, and then there are operational implications, as well, with managing these different devices.”

Pickelsimer said that in order to support multiple video streams at different resolutions on different devices, Cox has to chunk up a movie into 10-second streams.

“Each of those 10 seconds of video has to be transcoded into different bit rates, so there’s maybe four or five different bit rates that we’re doing to transcode that one 10-second chunk of video into,” she said. “So when you think about a single movie, we’re going to have multiple 10-second versions of that movie that we have to store with different bit rates, and then if we have different DRMs, we’re going to have to encrypt each of those in a different DRM, so you can imagine how that starts to grow.

“If you have a lot of different DRMs, it can get very costly in terms of the amount of storage you have to have, and transcoders and what have you, just to make your content available.”

Steve TranterHOW TO MANAGE DRMs
Cable operators are moving along with their plans to migrate over to IP-based services and infrastructures, which fit right into DRM’s sweet spot. Steve Tranter, vice president of broadband and interactive at NDS, said that with IP, there are two pathways: managed and unmanaged.

The unmanaged path is the “quick win” because it allows cable operators such as Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable to deliver IP-based video services to iPads over the open Internet. The problem, according to Tranter, is that the unmanaged path doesn’t scale because every user has a secure pipe – via URL tokenization – to the headend, which is what led to the initial service crashes experienced by Time Warner Cable when it launched its iPad for live streaming last year.

“Cox decided to not go down that path at all,” Tranter said. “The other guys are going to deploy DRM. Cablevision has announced it will use DRM to deliver to the PC and the Mac. With the iPad, they did tokenization to start with because there were fewer of them out there, so they could do that. But when you get large numbers of devices, in the case of PCs and Macs, it doesn’t work because it is a broadcast-type service that you are doing over a point-to-point network, so now they’re going to use CDNs (content delivery networks) and DRMs.

“That’s where we did our due diligence with Cox, and they chose us because of our level of integration. So when you’re looking at DRM, now you have to look at how integrated you are in the devices and how many client devices you can support. The DRM now is not just about protecting and giving you access to that content by some business rules, it’s also enhancing the business models behind it. There are a lot of debates and thought processes going into: What does the DRM bring beyond protecting the content and satisfying the studios?”

Motorola Mobility's Connect SR Platform ...

Tranter said NDS’ sales pitch is that it has worked closely with the studios that own the content, as well as worked on integrating with devices such as the iPad, PC, Mac, Android devices, connected TVs and game consoles. NDS offers a unified headend platform that provides an interface, which it calls a “domain manager,” to look at the rules associated with the content and DRMs. With its unified headend, NDS can work with other types of DRMs and also set business rules, such as pay-per-view, black-outs, and the number and types of devices that a cable operator wants to support.

“The domain manager looks at the rules for that particular content, channel, pay-per-view price, the subscription tier, the parental rating and so on, and it will wrap it all up in the appropriate license for that device,” Tranter said. “That domain manager has a single interface, which is a complicated interface. You only want to do it once. You don’t want to do it for every DRM. So that’s one part of the solution that we can offer, and it makes sense to do that toward the various DRM servers.”

In order to manage multiple DRMs – as well as provide entitlement enforcement, one platform for billing and policy rights, and a transparent user experience – Motorola has come up with its software-based Connect SR platform, which is currently in trial with a North American service provider.

“Primarily, it serves as kind of an abstract layer above the different DRM systems,” said Barry Falvo, principle member of technical staff at Motorola Mobility. “Of course, each of these DRMs implements their solution in a proprietary way, or at least in a unique way. To integrate these solutions into a system, the back office essentially needs to know how to accommodate each of the protocols that each system brings to the table. Basically, what Connect SR does is abstract that away.”

Connect SR has adapters that interface with the licensed servers for the DRM systems, as well as a unified Web services interface that communicates with the back office for doing account-level entitlement authorizations.

NDS Group's VideoGuard Connect DRM ...

“We felt the introduction of a centralized point for operating all of these different DRMs made a lot of sense, just from a pure operational perspective, but then in doing that, it also opens up all of these other opportunities for what you can do across DRM domains in a coordinated fashion,” Falvo said. “Things like implementing different types of policies that can be applicable across different DRM domains.”

Nagra’s DRM offering is called Nagra Media PRM, with the “PRM” part standing for persistent rights management. As the name implies, Nagra Media PRM shepherds the content throughout a home network.

“It persists, in other words, whatever the operator entitles the viewer to watch on their set-top box, PVR or gateway. Then we make sure that entitlement persists across the home domain or the home network,” said Robin Wilson, vice president of business development at Nagra. “So that if they watch it on an iPad, a PC or some other device, it’s linked to their cable subscription and account.”

Nagra Media PRM ...Not for a very, very long time, according to Rogers’ Purdy, but DRM is ideally suited for IP devices and delivery. Before the cable industry gets to all-IP networks and gateways, hybrid gateways can strip off QAM-based MPEG-2 streams, transcode them into MPEG-4 and send them around a home encapsulated in IP.

Even in an all-IP world, Nagra’s Wilson said conditional access may have a longer shelf life on the live TV front, as well as with one-way satellite providers, but DRMs will thrive on the two-way IP networks of the future.

“Over time, DRM will replace conditional access in the sense that most service providers that I talk to eventually see a world where they’re still deploying set-top boxes but also enabling IP devices, so at that point, conditional access would go away, but that’s many, many years down the road,” Purdy said.

PLACE-SHIFTING STREAMS
Cox’s Pickelsimer said the technology is already in place to enable video streaming outside of subscribers’ homes, but the content rights are the sticking point.

Purdy said he thinks streaming out of the home will start to thaw out sometime this year as studios and content owners strike deals with service providers, but content security shouldn’t be a sticking point in those discussions.

“I think sometimes security is used as leverage in commercial negotiations, so quite often we’re having DRM discussions, or security discussions, on assets that are available on over-the-air broadcasts,” he said. “If you’re broadcasting a title over the air for free in HD, but you are requiring us to deploy DRM, I think we’re having more of a commercial discussion disguised as a technology discussion.

“I think in some cases, people want to get paid for their content as it increases in value to the customer, or as the utility increases. To me, one of the most important things that we can do is increase the utility of the content by making it available across more devices and delivering on that time-shifting and place-shifting promise of TV Everywhere. If we get too bogged down on the security discussions to the point where we’re not keeping pace with customer expectations, I think it becomes a real challenge to the system.”

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