MSOs Discover Way to Stop Unauthorized Set-Top Usage

R.J. Juneau, CTO and founder of Maxxian

R.J. Juneau, CTO and founder of Maxxian

April 23, 2010 – Notwithstanding the ironclad security afforded by conditional access systems that protect digital set-tops from illicit use, a wide array of largely untracked operations glitches appear to be contributing to significant revenue losses at many if not most MSOs.

This is the conclusion drawn from extensive work performed by Maxxian Integration, Inc. across a total set-top footprint exceeding five million boxes in North America. Over the past five years or so the company has identified close to 200,000 set-tops in operation without authorization, 150,000 of which have been turned off and another 40,000 of which have been converted to paying accounts, says R.J. Juneau, CTO and founder of Maxxian.

“Even if all those boxes that have been brought back into the billing system are second boxes in subscribing households, which is often the case, there’s still an average of $350 to $400 per year being recouped with each box,” Juneau says. “And if they are first boxes, the first-year revenue gain is about $1,000, not counting the costs of subscriber acquisition.”

Adding to the industry’s potential loss total is the fact that many set-tops that aren’t in operation are unaccounted for in warehouse storage or haven’t been collected from terminated subscribers, resulting in under utilization of valuable inventory. “Often following acquisitions and consolidations cable systems lose track of some of the inventory,” Juneau says.

“We’re frequently finding that in digital systems that have been in operation for five or eight years up to 20 percent of the inactive boxes on former accounts were never picked up,” he adds. “With so much going on in cable, it’s hard to imagine that things wouldn’t be falling through cracks.”

Maxxian was founded in 2003 in response to operators’ concerns over set-tops that appeared to be in operation even though they were no longer associated with active accounts. Over time the company built a portfolio of products designed to streamline the initial auditing and ongoing tracking processes to the point that virtually all set-tops are accounted for, whether they’re being used illegally, happen to be sitting on work benches in active mode in instances where technicians forgot to turn them off after testing or have been lost track of in the inventory pool.

The detective work that goes into identifying all the missing set-tops in a cable system entails comprehensive analysis of all the metrics available through the billing, conditional access, network operations and other system components as they are matched with set-top serial numbers, MAC (media access control) addresses and cable card numbers. Given that all but the earliest generation digital set-tops are two way, thorough tracking can identify units that are transmitting return signals that are not associated with active accounts.

The key to success is “our data has to be absolutely accurate,” Juneau says. “You have to make sure everything matches.”

The process begins with the compiling of all the data and means of accessing it within a given cable operation in order to perform an initial audit using the tools and processes comprising the company’s CounterStryx Audit system. “We identify and document the business units and technical systems and how they tie together,” he says. “We document every authorization status and verify it against the actual set-top status down to the package details. Then we analyze the data and verify it with operations personnel and repeat the process until everything is right.”

The analysis includes comprehensive set-top response analysis at both the set-top and account levels, down to individual paths, nodes and street segments within nodes as well as account, set-top and tuner capacity analysis down to each path and node. All of this is broken into manageable categories, including active on account, non-pay disconnect, available inventory and write-offs.

Upon completion of the initial audit, the processes are ready for porting into the company’s highly automated CounterStryx Operations Center, which turns the audit into a continuous process using daily extracts from CA and billing in conjunction with online access to set-top, account, node, plant and management information. Each CA system has its own dedicated Operations Center, all of which can be tied into the CounterStryx HQ, a consolidated access point affording technical staff views into all data across all centers.

A key component of the Operations Center and HQ is the CounterStryx Tracker, which guides customers through correction of set-top authorization and configuration problems. The process prioritizes and assigns work to appropriate staff, manages limits on daily volumes, verifies effectiveness of corrections and tracks instances where set-tops have been returned to an on-account revenue status.

By far the most common cause of failure to shut down set-tops on terminated accounts occurs when CA systems fail to respond to commands for termination of operations from the billing system, Juneau says. “This is one of the reasons a global refresh on billing to reconcile all accounts doesn’t catch everything,” he notes. “The billing system says there is no account, but the set-top is still receiving signals.”

Or, in the case of merged cable systems, the problem may not be that the CA system isn’t responsive to billing commands. It may be that the billing systems got mixed up on which CA systems are serving which boxes. “The billing system says box X is on CA 1, but in fact the box is on CA 2,” Juneau explains. “Box X will still be in operation if the billing system sent the shut-down notice to CA 1.”

A particularly difficult problem to track is what cable operators jokingly call the “Friends and Family Program,” where a multi-box household has parceled out one of the boxes to someone else, with the result that what should be a first-box subscription fee is the low-priced add-on to another subscription package.

“We may be getting signals from all the boxes on a subscriber’s account but discover that one of them is signaling from another location on the plant,” Juneau says. “Because we’re matching everything up with location data we can flag that something is wrong.”

Maxxian’s latest addition to the product suite is an automated process for set-top diabling, deletion and configuration correction. The companies said that the new Tracker Automation solution cuts the time required for chronic set-top box polls with an operator’s network by 60 percent. By gaining more direct control over set-tops the automation process can speed the shutdown process.

“The same thing that caused the problem in the first place, namely a failure of shutoff response to commands from the billing system, can turn the shutdown into a tedious manual process,” Juneau says. “We’re very careful to avoid any errors in shutdown by limiting the number of serial numbers we act on to ten in the first step followed by an intense validation process. This way we don’t get accused of melting down the call center.”