A Reader’s Guide to the FCC’s 2nd Report & Order on Navigational Devices
by Leslie Ellis // March 28 2005
There’s a little bit of everything in the FCC’s St. Patrick’s Day declaration: Deadline relief, new rules, new technologies, big names, big promises.
As regulatory documents go, the 2nd Report & Order on Navigational Devices, as it’s called, is pretty absorbing. It runs over 37 pages, including an extra meaty, 17-page chronicle titled “State of the Navigation Market,” which consolidates everyone’s views, including all the big players.
If you can read just one part, read section III. It’s a meticulous summary of everything that’s happened so far. And if you haven’t the time even for that, this week’s translation is intended as a reader’s guide to the new rules.
The big news, already widely reported, is a push to July 1, 2007 (from July 1, 2006) of the ban on deploying integrated set-tops. That means digital cable boxes with built-in security, like everything deployed so far. Obviously, this is a Big Win for the home team.
There’s a second, more subtle win, too. It’s the FCC’s support of “downloadable security” as a potential replacement for the hardware known as CableCard (the card itself, and the slot it slides into.)
Downloadable security, also known as “downloadable conditional access” and “downloadable CA,” grew out of the Next Generation Network Architecture (NGNA) effort advanced by Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications last year. Their reasoning: If security becomes virtually separable (a software thing) instead of physically separable (a hardware thing), implementation costs drop for everyone.
The FCC likes it for its potential to serve as a common security base for old and new makers of cable-ready devices. As Commissioner Jonathon Adelstein explained: “We …decided to postpone (the ban), for one year only, to give the players involved a chance to determine whether a downloadable security solution is feasible, and if so, when it could be implemented.”
Cable’s deadline for the feasibility answer is Dec. 1. If it turns out that downloadable security is do-able, but not by July 2007, the FCC will consider a further extension.
But that admission came late in the document, abutted by this no-nonsense declaration: “We expect cable operators to work diligently.”
The Next Fights
Also due on Dec. 1 is a list of all licensing terms that will be required of manufacturers who want to build cable-ready devices with downloadable security. If history is any guide, that list will color next year’s work between cable and the CE community.
As this column has described before, the CE industry operates on thin margins. Very thin. Anything smelling of cost elicits a yowl.
And, though it can’t technically be tagged a “win,” the home team thought it good news that the FCC is hip to the time-to-market tradeoffs between standards and innovation. In other words, it will not force cable to be in lockstep, standards-wise, with CE manufacturers, before introducing new services. A common security mechanism should be enough for both parties to innovate, the FCC reasons.
And then there’s the bad news. Cable had angled for a full removal of the ban. They got an extension. Abolishing the ban seems unlikely; the FCC’s strong implication was “don’t ask us again.”
Then there’s the issue of “multi-stream” CableCards. They’re needed when you want to record or otherwise tune one scrambled program, while recording or watching another scrambled program. Technical specifications exist for multi-stream cards, the FCC notes, but none are in consumers’ homes yet.
Translation: If the industry doesn’t get moving on multi-stream, any further asks (such as for more extensions) will raise eyebrows.
The FCC was clear about its discontent, too, over the lack of competing two-way devices, sold at retail: “The bidirectional negotiations have been disappointing.”
Still, the Commission acknowledged that cable and CE manufacturers convened more than 30 times in the five months since Oct. 19, 2004. (Quipped one regular attendee: “Feels more like 300.”)
Also encouraging, the FCC said in its order, is the promise on Feb. 24 from mucketies at Microsoft Corp., Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp., to “personally supervise the efforts to reach a bi-directional deal.” (Personally.)
Ultimately, the FCC said, the deadline extension should “infuse new life into the stalled bidirectional discussions.” Hope springs eternal.
What You Have to Do
The to-do lists associated with the Report & Order mostly involve reports. Lots of reports. There’s the feasibility study and licensing list for downloadable security, due in December.
Then there’s a new series of progress reports. One is bi-monthly, starting on August 1, to update the FCC on how downloadable security is going over in the two-way talks. Both cable and the CE side need to file those.
Another is cable-specific, and it illuminates the FCC’s worry that CableCard installs … have issues. It’s also due on August 1, and every 90 days thereafter, but only from the top-six operators.
That report needs seven sections: CableCard availability, number of cards in service, whether service calls were needed, average number of truck rolls per CableCard install, monthly charge and average install cost, deployment problems, and problem resolution.
That one also needs to contain the plan for multi-stream CableCards, including a deployment timetable. Dallying doesn’t seem to be an option: “We expect the timetable provided in the report to be in the near future.”
That’s a summary of the big stuff in the new rules. Next time, a deeper dive into conditional access.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
A Pocket Map to the Edge of the Network
by Leslie Ellis // March 14 2005
Trends can dawn suddenly. You observe yet another of your friends wearing eyeglasses. She ordinarily wears contacts. You somehow already know this to be a pre-surgery requirement, and ask when she’s going in. It dawns on you that this Lasik thing is really taking off.
For me, it’s the word “edge.” It’s one of those words that crisscrosses between everyday talk and industrial tech speak: There’s the edge of the kitchen counter, and then there’s the edge of the network. One is something you bump into; the other, an invisible boundary.
The “edge” dawning arrived during a recent conversation with a cable system honcho, who made this sage, if slightly exasperated, observation: “It seems there’s always something going on at the edge of the network.” (We had been talking about Things That Cost Money.)
The remark made me wonder: Where is the edge, anyway?
The answer, delivered as a sort of verbal pocket map, was the original intent of this week’s translation.
Alas. In order to make a map, you need directions. And it turns out that there are nearly as many “edges of the network” as there are people to ask about it.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve conducted an unofficial survey of this industry’s brighter tech-side brains. The questions: Where (oh where) is the edge of the network? If you were to draw us a map, where would we wind up, and what would we see?
From the onset, it seemed pretty clear that the answer depended on who was talking. In the technical community, as in all communities, there are knowledge precincts: Network engineers see edges differently than software engineers, data engineers, or plant engineers.
Put any specialist in front of a whiteboard, for example, and 95% of the writable surface quickly takes on the context of his known world — told in boxes, lines, letters and lists. Usually there’s a short line to a tiny cloud, in an upper, outer corner. The “edge” is that short line. The cloud is somebody else’s knowledge precinct.
Here’s a sampling of the “where’s the edge?” responses:
“The edge is at the end of the core.”
“The edge is where RF goes to IP, or visa versa.”
“The edge is the distribution hub.”
“The edge is where the QAMs (Quadrature amplitude modulators) are.”
“The edge is the output of the set-top box.”
“The edge is after the headend, before the eyeball.”
And, my personal favorite: “It’s where the bits fall off.” (Ten bonus points to Time Warner Cable tech guru Steve Johnson for deadpanning that one.)
The crazy thing is, everybody’s right. The edge, it turns out, is in the eye of the beholder.
Walking to the Edge
One way to grasp the tapestry of edges in a contemporary cable system is to visually walk it. Say you’re standing in the headend. It, in a sense, is a network edge: Internet traffic and satellite signals make big junctions there. It is the core, so its “head” and its “end” are both edges.
You step outside to walk to the next edge. In this example, you’re magically able to follow the fiber optic plant to the nearest distribution hub. Let’s say the hub is 10 miles away. (Actual mileage varies predictably; pack a lunch.) Hubs are edges for lots of things: Advertising zones, node clusters, signal handoffs.
You keep on walking. You want to visit one of the 40 or so nodes fed by the hub, because nodes are edges. They’re where the light on the fiber optic cables drops off, and the signals are moved onto the RF (radio frequency) plant.
You’re now in the zone of “the last mile,” although the last mile usually isn’t a linear mile. It’s a collection of cable lengths which, when summed, can be a mile. You follow one of them from the metal box that is the node.
You wind up at somebody’s house. It’s a good customer: Inside is a digital set-top box, a cable modem, and a voice over IP device. Each are edges.
How do you know what people are talking about, then, when they say things like “more intelligence at the edge,” or “edge QAMs”? A tip: Most technologists wound up describing the node when asked about the edge. The point where light goes to RF came in first, by far.
But if it’s a case of “edge intelligence,” then the in-home equipment certainly qualifies. The edge becomes the place where network-based intelligence hands off. In the case of cable modems and VoIP devices, the intelligence could be anything aided by QoS (quality of service). In digital set-tops, it’s any of the advanced features fetched over that upstream path, from remote servers.
All of this makes “the edge” one of those trick words, because it puts its onus on you to decide what and where it is. Translation: If someone drops “the edge” on you in a conversation, you might want to ask which one.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.