It’s been just over four months since the FCC’s CableCARD mandate went into effect, and, as the NCTA reported late last month, the number of set-tops with CableCARDs in consumer homes has already more than doubled the total number of CableCARDs requested by consumers in the three-year period before July 1, 2007. Given such a massive market transition, I’ve been wondering about some of the details behind putting so many CableCARD set-tops in the field. For a technical perspective I caught up with Motorola’s own Rob Folk. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: First off, when Motorola introduced CableCARD-compliant set-tops at CES last January, there wasn’t one new box, but a whole new product line. Couldn’t you have simplified matters by sticking with one new set-top model?
Rob: Unfortunately not. That’s one part of why this transition was such a big job. As cable operators moved over to the separable security model, they certainly weren’t willing to sacrifice the range of options they had come to expect with embedded-security set-tops. When we launched the DCH line, we needed standard-definition and high-def products, DVRs and non-DVRs, analog-digital set-tops and all-digital set-tops. While we were at it, we also created a new external set-top design. It was a massive undertaking.
Q: The point of introducing CableCARD-compliant or host set-tops was to separate out the sophisticated security component of the hardware. What were some of the technical challenges in accomplishing that?
Rob: It sounds simple, the idea that you’re just removing a feature, but it was incredibly complicated. The security chips have been an integral part of set-tops since their inception. In ripping that component off the board, we had to create a new interface through which operators could literally insert encryption technology via an external card. Not only that, but the interface had to be capable of taking a standardized package, meeting CableLabs’ specifications, i.e. a CableCARD. All of that added a lot of complexity, and there was pressure too in moving away from technology that had worked so well for so long.
Q: There are retail devices on the market that take CableCARDS, so other folks have mastered this type of challenge before. How are Motorola’s Host set-tops different from what’s available at retail?
Rob: The key difference is Motorola’s Host set-tops had to be validated against all of the applications that the service providers already had deployed in the field on the embedded security set-tops. Retail set-tops don’t have all of the same functionality as cable set-tops at this point. Ensuring that the Host set-tops supported transparently the same interactive applications as the embedded-security products took a great deal of effort.
Q: I know not all of the engineering for the CableCARD transition happened in the set-tops. What else had to be done?
Rob: There was a lot of on-site preparation work done with our customers. We did system upgrades at the headend, including working on support for interactive applications. Operators needed the latest application versions and platform software to implement the switchover. Then there were the more mundane aspects of the transition like making changes to the subscriber billing systems. It was a very detailed process.
From an overall education perspective, Motorola did a number of programs to support the operators with this transition including: seminars, a webinar, a whitepaper and an in-depth training program.
Q: I know that Motorola’s embedded-security set-tops have not gone away completely. How does that impact the current situation?
Rob: Our earlier line of set-tops has not gone away at all. Those products are still being used by operators outside the US and by operators in the US who received FCC waivers. And you’re right; the fact that so many different set-tops are deployed does have an impact on our work. We maintain technical support teams for all of our products in the field.
Q: Last question, how have operators and consumers responded since the transition took place?
Rob: Deployments have gone well. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and comments from the operators. I think the key indicator is that operators are now looking at these Host set-tops just like any other set-tops. The specialness has gone away, which is a good thing when you’re trying to make a transition as seamless as possible.
As far as consumers go, there is a fair amount of confusion about what actually happened when the CableCARD deadline passed. I know we get questions through the Motorola website about purchasing Motorola set-tops at retail. In reality, the Seven-Oh-Seven deadline was a change for operators, but there was no change for consumers. Motorola makes set-tops for service providers, but other retail devices have been supported for several years now. And the Motorola host products are designed to provide the same functionality as earlier embedded-security set-tops.
Filed under: CableCARD