Freedom from Protection Worries Builds Momentum for Cable DTAs

Dave Clark, director, product strategy and management for cable set-tops, Cisco Systems

Dave Clark, director, product strategy and management for cable set-tops, Cisco Systems

April 20, 2009 – The use of digital terminal adapters (DTAs) as a means of bandwidth reclamation in cable is gaining momentum, thanks in part to an undisclosed deal negotiated with programmers that is said to obviate the need for protecting basic service content, at least for now.

As previously reported (September, p. 1), digital delivery of analog basic service tiers to DTAs has raised a question of whether such content could be protected without incurring the costs of employing the removable set-top security mechanism required by the FCC. While such content has not been secured in analog mode, rendering it digitally makes it more valuable to pirates, which raised a question of whether license holders would require protection.

Last summer several vendors competed to provide Comcast the light security that was deemed necessary to pass licensing muster in the DTA delivery mode. Sources said the MSO chose a “light” version of Motorola’s Privacy Mode encryption system with the intention of opening the market to other set-top suppliers by eventually going to the SCTE 52 data encryption standard, also known as Cipher Block Chaining.

Cable operators felt they had a case for using software-based security that could run on the low-cost DTA microprocessor without use of dedicated decryption hardware, thereby avoiding the need for removable security. But there was no assurance this interpretation of the rules would fly at the FCC, which caused a lot of hesitation about DTAs among other MSOs. Moreover, equipping headends to support a simpler form of encryption than digital systems now use added expense to the whole proposition.

Meanwhile, sources say, Comcast was quietly exploring the possibility of winning dispensation from programmers that would permit the MSO to transmit the content digitally in the clear. These sources say an agreement was reached at the start of the year that will allow transmission of the analog basic tier digitally without use of content protection for a two-year period.

“Comcast had decided to go with a software-based version of Motorola’s Privacy Mode, but now that won’t be necessary,” says an executive involved with the security issue, speaking on background. “This has lifted a big cloud of uncertainty on the DTA strategy, which is now drawing wider interest among MSOs.”

Comcast, now rolling out DTAs in a handful of markets, is discovering strong market receptivity, with a large share of analog customers installing the devices themselves. In a video interview carried by Multichannel News, Comcast Cable CTO Tony Werner told industry analyst Leslie Ellis these experiences have confirmed his company’s plans to reclaim anywhere from 45 to 80 or possibly more analog channels across all its cable systems over the next 12 to 24 months.

“It went a lot smoother than I dreamed it would,” Werner said of the initial DTA rollout in Portland, Ore. “I’m more optimistic about the prospects for DTAs now than I was six months or a year ago.”

Among the various strategies under consideration as near-term solutions for gaining more bandwidth for HDTV and dedicated “unicast” services, including switched digital video and installation of 1 gigaHertz amplifiers, the DTA approach results in the biggest spectrum gain, Werner said. Plus, with over 70 percent of Comcast’s customer base already taking digital service, equipping the remainder of the market with DTAs to eliminate the analog bandwidth “was an obvious choice for us,” he said.

Speaking during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call in February Comcast COO Steve Burke said the company was gearing up to introduce DTAs in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. While upfront costs outweigh immediate returns, he said, the longer term benefits associated with lowered service theft, operational efficiencies and the opportunity to up sell customers to new digital services should be “accretive” to the bottom line.

Comcast initially tapped Thomson, Pace Micro Technology and Motorola as its DTA suppliers. Cisco Systems is also hoping to capture DTA business, notes Dave Clark, director of product strategy and management for cable set-tops at Cisco.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of interest in DTAs and a tremendous strategic debate on DTAs as well,” Clark says. “We have a lot of people testing the DTAs. Who will deploy them and where is still a matter of debate.”

The DTA effect is being felt elsewhere as well. Canadian supplier Vecima Networks, which had been poised to introduce a switched digital video solution as an adjunct to its universal edge QAMs (quadrature amplitude modulators) if the market demand was there, has put SDV on hold, says Richard Blenkinsop, vice president of marketing and product development at Vecima.

“We’re not hearing a lot of buzz around SDV the way there was a year or two ago,” Blenkinsop asserts. “The feeling is that analog reclamation [through use of DTAs] delivers the biggest improvement in bandwidth efficiency.” As reported elsewhere (p. 14), Vecima has responded to the growing move toward all-digital transmission in cable with development of a digital-to-analog plant-mounted module that can provide support for serving all analog customers in MDUs without requiring installation of DTAs at each TV set.

But there is still strong resistance to the DTA option in some quarters. While the strategy delivers big bandwidth gains, it doesn’t move the industry toward the intelligent edge-based switching paradigm that SDV supports and which many feel is the wave of the future, totally apart from bandwidth reclamation issues. “At the end of the day, if you deploy DTAs everywhere, you’re still looking at having to go to a switched architecture,” says an MSO engineer, speaking on background. “And there’s no migration path for a DTA. When people upgrade to digital, the DTAs are junk.”

Werner, however, made clear Comcast doesn’t see the choice of the DTA as an either/or option next to switching. “You will see us doing a lot of switching in the future, because that’s the natural evolution of our industry,” he said. “But I think there will be more MSOs going to DTAs as well.”