The New York Times ran a story today on CableCards "Faltering" in the US, but to those of us who have been following the situation this was hardly news. Indeed, the fate of the smart CableCARD that was to replace the cable company’s proprietary set-top box (STB) was doomed from the start because of the way it pitted cable content delivery companies represented by the National Cable Television Assoc. (NCTA) against the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).
Senior Analyst and Editor
of Projection Monthly
CableCARDs had their genesis in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which mandated cable companies to separate out security and conditional access from cable STBs so CE retailers could sell brand-name devices direct to consumers. The mandate eventually morphed into "CableCARD," with security and conditional-access data to be made available on a smart card (CableCARD) from the local cable company that talks to the electronics embedded in your TV.
But Gen 1 was crippled from the start because it only supported uni-directional access. That is, there were no lucrative added-value services for the cable companies like Video-on-Demand or Interactivity with the cable head-end. Cable companies also lost on STB rental fees and hefty installation charges.
Enter Downloadable Conditional Access System, DCAS for short. This is another way to skin the cat and keep compliance with the ‘96 Telecommunications Act. DCAS puts the security functions of a CableCARD into a software program that can be downloaded into any "host device" like a smart TV.
This is done via the OCAP - OpenCable Application Platform - a CableLabs-specified middleware stack that will allow DCAS to run standard APIs (application program interfaces) inside your TV, thus turning your set into a computer, or rather, "a host processor running software stacks." TV makers don’t like the "c" word as it scares away customers.
All this hoopla around OCAP hit a high note in January at CES. There, in what was touted as a "milestone move," it was announced that the major cable operators, who serve 65% of cable households, agreed to adopt OCAP. The other highlight was that the software would deploy on a Java platform licensed from Sun Microsystems - to the consternation of Microsoft, which was lobbying hard to get into the TV space.
Deployment will start as early as October ‘06 and take until July 2009 to complete. Don’t get me wrong. There’s still plenty for NCTA and CEA to bicker about, including control of the software, and it’s likely this will have to be sorted out before full deployment takes place. But in the meantime companies like Samsung are moving forward with new products based on this standard.
Suffice it to say that CableCard died a quiet death on December 1 of last year when both the CEA and NCTA reported the state of their iDCR (CableCARD2) negotiations to the FCC, stating their mutual acceptance of OCAP as the foundation upon which iDCR will be built. Gradual national deployment of OCAP will begin on Oct. 1, 2006, according to proposed FCC regulations from the NCTA. On April 1, 2007, subscribers can demand two-way access if their cable provider has deployed OCAP. By July 1, 2008, operators with more than 2M subscribers would be required to be OCAP capable, and full deployment would be mandatory by July 1, 2009 for all cable systems with more than 5,000 subscribers.
The Times prides itself on publishing "All the news that’s fit to print," and we agree today’s story was fit to print. It just wasn’t news.