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NCTA Offers Basic Cable Channels Encryption Solutions

The National Cable Television Association (NCTA) sent a letter to FCC Chairman Genachowski addressing Boxee's concern that if the FCC allows cable companies to encrypt basic digital cable channels (no more ClearQAM), its customers will no longer be able to use their device to receive basic cable TV channels. Off-air reception, of course, would not be affected.

In February I covered the dispute in "Boxee/NCTA Tangle Over Cable Encryption."

The letter from NCTA's Michael K. Powell states, "We recognize, however, that some parties have raised concerns regarding the ability of IP-enabled Clear QAM devices to obtain access to programming on the basic service tier once it is encrypted. We continue to believe that those concerns are misplaced, particularly because manufacturers of such devices could build their devices with CableCARD slots--the commission’s preferred solution for decrypting cable content in retail devices. Nonetheless, the cable industry is prepared to make additional commitments set forth below in order to provide further assurances regarding access to the basic service tier."

Option 1 states: "Cable operators shall be permitted to encrypt their basic service

tiers in encrypted systems at such time as they offer to basic tier subscribers with retail IP-enabled Clear QAM devices in such systems an operator-supplied set-top box, digital transport adapter ("DTA") or other operator supplied equipment with standard home networking capability (e.g., equipment with a DLNA-enabled Ethernet connector or Wi-Fi capability)."

Option 2 is more complex: "Subject to the procedure described in this paragraph, cable

operators shall be permitted to encrypt their basic service tiers in encrypted systems in which they enable IP-enabled Clear QAM devices to access the basic service tier without the need for an operator-supplied set top box, DTA, or CableCARD. In enabling such access, such cable operators shall use commercially available security technology that is licensable on a non-discriminatory basis to manufacturers of such retail devices. Any cable operator that pursues this option agrees to make publicly available the requirements necessary (including any authentication processes) for such a device to access the basic service tier and submit a copy of such requirements to the commission. Cable operators who elect this option shall be permitted to encrypt their basic service tiers three months after submitting such requirements to the Commission."

I have not seen a response from Boxee or other manufacturers of devices using ClearQAM (Hauppauge's Broadway for example), but I have a number of questions about how NCTA's technology would handle channel changes and work with home-build devices using ClearQAM tuners and Windows Media Center, or the popular MythTV DVR. I would hope that options 1 and 2 would not be limited to devices using Microsoft or Apple operating systems.

Also, it isn't clear if either option would work with second or third ClearQAM DTV sets in a household connected to cable TV without the cable subscriber purchasing or renting additional equipment.

I understand why cable operators want to encrypt basic digital cable channels. If a customer decides to "cut the cord" when it comes to cable TV, but keeps their cable-delivered Internet service, it’s difficult for the operator to stop them from receiving the basic digital channels. I hope NCTA and the FCC can find a solution that protects the cable signals, while allowing subscribers to continue to use their existing DVRs and TV sets, and does not limit them to specific equipment using specific operating systems.