New York - Cable executives shed more light on the industry's plans for downloadable conditional access (CA) systems for digital set-tops and televisions here at the annual CableLabs media briefing.

If all goes as planned, a CA system largely based in software will someday handle the same security functions of the CableCARD, a key cog in the current OpenCable platform and Plug & Play agreement. In fact, such a system could replace the CableCARD altogether as the industry's "removable" CA platform of choice.

Some of this work stems from a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to maintain a ban on cable set-tops with integrated security, but extend the deadline 12 months to July 2007. Cable is using this time to develop a downloadable security system, and to prove to the FCC that such a system is viable. The cable industry must file a feasibility report with the FCC by Dec. 1.

The cable industry maintains that a software CA, plus an inexpensive security processor in the set-top or TV, is the most secure and efficient way to go. And that includes the whole food chain - from cable operators, to consumer electronics companies and the consumers themselves.

"No matter your constituency...downloadable security is better than the solution we have had in the past," said Mark Coblitz, Comcast Corp.'s senior vice president of strategy planning.

The CableCARD, he said, is much more complex to install and manage versus a software-based system because the card itself is a physical device. With software, "there are no...inventory control issues," Coblitz added. Plus, "it's more secure than the system we have today."

The downloadable CA CableLabs is noodling will embed five different core encryption engines, according to Mike Hayashi, Time Warner Cable 's SVP of advanced engineering & subscriber technology.

The first three comply with existing encryption systems from Motorola Inc. (Mediacipher), Scientific-Atlanta (PowerKEY), and CSA (Common Scrambling Algorithm, for DVB-based cable systems). The other two are Triple DES and AES (Advanced Encryption System).

(Editor's note: Much more on this subject will be covered in the June 2005 issue of CED).