The wide variety of technology formats that promise consumers access to premium content any time, any place, anywhere is putting conditional access systems under the spotlight. Lynd Morley takes a look
The application of conditional access (CA) used to be fairly simple to grasp: the protection of content - most commonly sent to digital television systems via cable or satellite - requiring certain criteria to be met before granting access to said content. OK, so install the Sky box near your TV; insert the smart card; and you're away.
But the increasing digitisation of content and the plethora of new distribution methodologies and business models are rather complicating the picture. Consumers can now access content via a wide range of devices, and at a time and place of their choice. And while content distributors and service providers are clearly expanding the boundaries and enhancing the reach of their services to the consumer, such premium content is, inevitably, increasingly exposed to the risks of piracy and theft. Indeed, the increasing prevalence of broadband networks and the ease with which digital media can be cloned and distributed, combine great opportunity and great risk for the owners of premium content, raising security to a high priority.
Doubtless that is one of the reasons that market analysts remain fairly bullish about the conditional access sector, which is set to generate revenues approaching $1.4 billion this year, according to ABI Research, who also note that telcos will be taking an increasingly large slice of the pie at the expense of cable and satellite industries. Not that cable and satellite players are about to disappear, but industry analyst Zippy Aima notes: "The options now offered by new deployments of mobile and IP TV - including interactive and on-demand content, time-shifting and place-shifting - are generating a buzz that drives demand for their premium content to a wider audience."
Certainly conditional access players are addressing a fast changing, challenging market, where all participants, whether content providers and distributors or security solutions vendors, continue to jockey for position and battle for market share, all with an eye to the technology changes and developments that will impact their success. Indeed, the marketplace has recently seen not only hard competitive selling, but the unedifying spectacle of court action over the alleged cracking of smart card encryption by one solutions vendor - the results of which are passed on to pirates - in order to gain competitive advantage over another. This may raise the question of who should actually be described as a ‘pirate'.
For the most part, however, CA solutions vendors, including such leading lights as Irdeto, Viaccess, Conax, Nagravision, and Verimatrix take a more conventional competitive stance in arguing the advantages of their particular approach or products. And faced with a fast developing, and clearly highly competitive market, they are also finding different ways to present competitive advantage. Irdeto, for example, is now offering what it describes as a full range of Content and Business Model Protection. Having established its name in content security, with more than 400 CA and Digital Rights Management (DRM) customers worldwide, the company recently acquired business support systems specialist IBS Interprit, set-top box (STB) solutions provider Idway and software and data centre security firm Cloakware. The idea is to enable operators and broadcasters to launch and grow their digital TV businesses profitably and securely, and while each acquired product will continue to be sold individually under the Irdeto brand, they will also be sold bundled as an end-to-end solution called Irdeto SmartStart for digital TV operators.
"We believe that this approach gives us a lot of strength in being able to offer clients the option of an end-to-end solution," explains Christopher Schouten, Director Global Product Marketing with Irdeto. "We've seen a real demand for this type of solution in the marketplace, particularly in developing economies such as India, where the SmartStart concept is very attractive to companies whose - often home-grown - legacy systems are beginning to buckle under the demands of providing multi-play services."
Conax is also building a solid customer base in many of the emerging economies, having established a presence in India, China and Brazil back in 2003. Celebrating the five-year anniversary of its presence in India on June 27th of this year, the company announced that it had deployed a total of five million smart cards to the Indian market during that time. But Conax's philosophy is to concentrate on its security products - its core competency - as Geir Bjorndal, COO and Sales & Marketing Director explains. "We are very focussed on our security products, and I believe that having that focus means we can be very reactive to market requirements."
Certainly, the company has a number of security laurels to - if not rest on - at least, point to. It developed one of the first pay-TV smart cards in the world in 1990, and by 2006 Conax CA was in operation in over 180 installations in more than 60 countries around the world. The latest figures show an expansion into over 70 countries globally.
Bjorndal believes that broadcast solutions are still the ‘bread and butter' of CA offerings, noting: "These linear solutions are going to be needed for some time to come. However," he adds, "developing technologies, and changes to infrastructure and distribution mean we have to stay awake!" And to that end, he adds: "We are actively building relations both with new and existing customers wishing to upgrade to IPTV, and with major integration partners, to deliver total solutions." Conax is also, according to Bjorndal, closely following the development within Mobile TV and is maintaining close contact with several partners offering solutions in the area.
Irdeto's Christopher Schouten agrees that changing markets require a sharp awareness of the need for different solutions. "Our focus on software-only solutions, for instance, is certainly increasing," he comments, "but it's really a matter of ‘horses for courses' - we need to ensure that the security that is provided for any environment is appropriate to that environment."
The software route has proved pretty successful for the comparatively ‘new kid on the block' Verimatrix whose software-based content security offering has brought plaudits from the likes of the Multimedia Research Group (MRG) ranking the company as a ‘global leader of IPTV content security' in its bi-annual IPTV Market Leader Report. Stephen Christian, Verimatrix VP Marketing, notes: "The whole notion of security in pay-TV systems has been very limited in scope for a long while, and very firmly centred around the notion that it's the smart card that represents the secure capability.
"We're coming from the background of a different kind of distribution system - not cable and satellite, but IPTV. And what we're seeing is that the general principles we've established for security in the IPTV world are actually going to be the norm for future distribution systems of all types - mobile video, satellite video, cable video and so forth. Everything is heading towards IP technologies, and we need security regimes that are built on IP foundations."
For any CA system to succeed in the marketplace, the exceptionally powerful studios - providing the all-important content - need to be comfortable with the solution. Verimatrix has been careful to ensure that their brand is known to the studios. "We've never had a pay-tv operator refused content because of their software based security regime," Christian explains. "We're pro-active with the studios - making sure the relevant decision makers inside studios and broadcast companies are well aware of what we can bring to the party, and how we're able to protect their interests. So licensing deals go as smoothly for us as for the legacy players."
Keeping the studios informed - and aware of your brand - is at least as important as the technical merits of any particular solution according to Christian.
He goes on to point out that there's no tougher testing environment for ensuring robust security than the Internet, where every solution must run a gauntlet of professional and underground hackers on a continuous basis. "That's why software-based IP security technologies have emerged as the gold standard for securing everything from web-based banking and financial transactions to high-value video in broadband and IPTV service applications," he comments. "Clearly, standards-based, high integrity security can be applied to media just as much as to, say, banking transactions. All the dominos are in place to make this happen - chip sets in set-top boxes are that much more powerful; TCP/IP protocols are widely available; broadband access is increasingly pervasive. All the constituent components are in place - let's take advantage of it, and make this leap forward."