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December 10, 2014

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End of Life for Separable Security Spawns New Opportunities

Three years ago, a dam was breached.  The White Salmon River dam in southern Washington State had been in place for more than 100 years, providing hydroelectric power to nearby communities.  Time passes, technology marches on, and new ideas take the place of old.  The dam’s decommissioning makes for a spectacular video, and of course video is the theme of this blog.  

Less than a year later, steelhead trout were spawning in the river above the old dam site, and several species of salmon – blocked for a century – followed in short order.  Rafters, fishermen, and lovers of nature were almost as thrilled by the newly freed river as the fish were.  

There were some losers in the story, including generations of formerly lakefront homeowners that now faced acres of muddy silt and a distant view of the river, and electricity users who lost an inexpensive and long-amortized source of power. 

I was struck by how the lifecycle of this dam is a perfect metaphor for the FCC Separable Security mandate. It’s a topic where I have heard the term “dam” many times, so the comparison isn’t too much of a stretch.  

Like the White Salmon hydropower facility, the Separable Security mandate was created to solve a problem of its time and with the best of intentions.  The goal was to open up the market for consumer electronic devices that could work on different cable TV networks, without an operator-provided set-top box.  Because the FCC’s mandate spanned only partway across the river - satellite, IPTV, and Internet TV services were not affected – the market for receiving devices never hit critical mass.  A few TVs were sold with CableCard slots, but they weren’t the ones that sold well at retail and so became obsolete.   

The major beneficiary ended up to be TiVo, who could offer a single retail set-top box to consumers that, with a CableCard adapter, could be connected to most cable TV systems.  In the end, CableCards were an added expense for the operators, something of a regulatory-mandated bulwark for the incumbent security solutions, and a confusing inconvenience for consumers. 

But, the dam thing has been breached.  The STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014, a bill related to the regulation of satellite broadcasting in the U.S., contained provisions that end the Separable Security mandate on December 31, 2015.  

We’re likely to see some long-blocked technologies migrate into this newly freed market, including software-based downloadable security.  This and other transitions may accelerate the last steps of the cable market’s transition from RF QAM to IP.  

Other interim technologies, like cable/IP gateways, may be short-lived or bypassed entirely.  We can expect the seamless interoperation of multicast and unicast networks, along with a faster adoption of services that span wired, wireless, and third-party networks.  And, we may finally realize the original intent of the Separable Security mandate:  retail devices that can be attached to many different and interesting video services.  

Sounds like a pretty good day on the river…

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