Booting video pirates from cable’s ship

Jun 11, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Digital bandits looking to pilfer HBO’s compilation of licensed movies had better think twice before striking the pay-cable network’s video-on-demand service, which television technology developer Scientific-Atlanta is demonstrating on its Explorer set-tops this week at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association show in Chicago.
Scientific-Atlanta’s Explorer set-tops are buttressed by the company’s PowerKey conditional access system, which is designed to provide film studios assurance that they can share their film libraries with cable operators without compromising the collection’s security.
Scientific-Atlanta, despite its status as a Hollywood outsider bent on building technology infrastructure rather than creating entertainment, holds a significant stake in the future success of its efforts to guard the major studios’ works. Aside from the fact that multiple system operators Adelphia Communications, Charter Communications, Comcast Corp., Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable have all ordered S-A boxes endowed with the PowerKey protection mechanism, S-A stands to profit from other electronic hardware manufacturers’ use of the PowerKey tool.
In December, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Scientific-Atlanta intellectual property rights to a conditional access technology for cable systems. Now, S-A has licensed the PowerKey filter to several competing set-top box manufacturers, including Pace, Panasonic and Pioneer.
“I look at our system as a key enabling technology for VOD,” said Tony Wasilewski, chief scientist for Scientific-Atlanta’s subscriber network sector. “From our viewpoint, that market is as big as the set-top market.”
The PowerKey mechanism is based on a cryptography framework conceived by a trio of professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the late ’70s. That method, which has since blossomed into the most popular digital signature tool, harmonizes two disparate goals of the conditional access industry-ensuring that security professionals can easily verify a signature and guaranteeing that it would be too difficult for anyone other than one individual (in the case of video on demand, the digital cable customer) to generate the signature.
The technique, which is known as “public key” cryptography, keeps the code for signing onto a digital network and the cipher for authenticating that signature separate, balancing the industry’s twin aims of maintaining tight security while opening access codes just enough so they can be verified by a security system. The theory behind allowing the code to be verified by anyone is that it avoids a digital Keystone Kops scenario-a technological nightmare in which an encrypted signature becomes so secure that it can’t be accessed by a security system.
Re-encrypting a film each time it is ordered is another feature that differentiates PowerKey technology from competing solutions.
“When you bring up a movie, it’s uniquely encrypted just for you,” Mr. Wasilewski said. “That’s a stronger solution than having one copy of the movie encrypted for everyone. It makes the content owners feel a lot better that their product can’t be stolen.”
Scientific-Atlanta is so confident about the quality of its VOD conditional access solution that Mr. Wasilewski says the company will not be developing any upgrades or improvements to PowerKey. But he acknowledged that S-A is still refining the home-networking component of its video-on-demand hardware strategy.
“It might be interesting to have a capable enough home network to send … VOD content to other parts of the household” aside from one television set, Mr. Wasilewski said.
At least two features of Scientific-Atlanta’s home-networking offering have already been finalized. When its Explorer 4100 set-top units are shipped later this year, they will comply with both the Home Phone Line Networking Alliance’s standard for sending video throughout the home over telephone wires and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 802.11 wireless home networking protocol. S-A is still debating whether the 4100 boxes will adhere to two other wireless networking standards, HomeRF and Bluetooth.
“[802.11] will be the most popular home-networking standard,” Mr. Wasilewski said. “Clearly it is the most deployed enterprise solution, and it looks like it’s going to win out in the home as well.”
802.11 has gained acceptance faster than its two rival home-networking benchmarks because many electronic device manufacturers have already developed their production processes around the prevailing 802.11 standard for corporate applications. Without any compelling reason to switch to HomeRF or Bluetooth, reconfiguring their assembly procedures to meet unproven specifications would be uneconomical, industry participants say.
Although crafting technological innovations for the cable industry continues to be Scientific-Atlanta’s forte, the company is now dabbling in the cable programming business as well. S-A disclosed last month in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that trials of its forthcoming Kodak Picture channel have been delayed from their original projected launch date this quarter until the summer. In addition, S-A is demonstrating its newly unveiled news-on-demand service InView this week at the NCTA show.