Cabot featured in CSI Magazine Article

May 01, 2010

A 'C+' for progress

By David Adams

David Adams charts the progress and stumbling blocks of CI+ in Europe, and examines the impact it may be able to have on business models

We tend to think of technology as the fastest-moving of all industries and yet it is full of great survivors: machines and software that just go on and on. The DVB Common Interface (DVB-CI) has been with us since the mid-1990s, making it almost unimaginably elderly in technology terms, yet it will live on into the age of over-the-top (OTT) content, DVR, HD and IPTV, in its new, improved incarnation: known as the Common Interface Plus (CI+) standard.

This new specification was completed in 2008 by the CI Plus Forum, a limited liability partnership of CE manufacturers (Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony) and industry vendors (Neotion and SmarDTV), although it has only been available in its finalised version since the start of 2009. At its core it is primarily a security enhancement, providing copy protection between a Conditional Access Module (CAM) and a TV set or other receiver device via a PCMCIA interface.

In the original CI standard it was possible to send decrypted content across the PCMCIA interface when unscrambled, creating a security hole. CI+ solves this problem and enables MHEG-5 middleware to be embedded inside the CAM, allowing operators to maintain branding across third party CE devices. These changes also mean that CI+ allows consumers to access payTV services and some interactive services without (necessarily) using a set-top box (STB).

Various LG, Samsung, Sony, Philips and Panasonic TVs are now CI+ compatible, many CA vendors support the technology and there are firm undertakings from operators across Europe to use it. The first to announce its support was Dutch cable operator Ziggo, in mid-2009. Dutch retailers began selling CI+ CAMs in autumn 2009, just as services on Ziggo and on another smaller cable operator, Caiway, were launched. Other European operators on board include Canal+, Kabel Deutschland, Cablecom and Mediaset in Italy, where subscribers can access the Premium Calcio HD channel by buying an external decoder and HDMI cable.

“For a lot of end consumers it's a very compelling proposition: no box next to the TV and only one remote control,” says Andrew Wajs, CTO at CA vendor Irdeto. “We feel it's going to be important, because it enables not only secure access to payTV, but also opportunities to differentiate your offering with an EPG or other applications on the CI+ CAM, without a separate STB.”

It may also have a positive effect on premium content owners, suggests Chris Collis, software engineer at MHEG-5 middleware specialist Cabot Communications and chairman of the Connected TV Security group at the Digital TV Group (DTG). “Content owners are going to be happier to release content, probably earlier than before,” he claims. “That's where the money is, if consumers can watch a movie soon after it's been at the cinema and before it goes to DVD.” He also highlights the inclusion of Usage Rights Information technology, which gives content owners more control over exactly how protection is applied.

The technology is also stimulating activity among interactivity specialists. Jose Luis Vazquez, CEO at interactive media specialist Mirada can point to three proof-of-concept trials underway with three large operators in Europe. “You can't expect deployments in the next six months - but there is demand in the market for studies into how CI+ can impact business models,” he says.

He claims interest is coming from both cable and satellite operators, with the latter considering the possibilities of an integrated OTT offering. “Everyone is thinking about how to optimise their ability to reach customers in the back end and everyone is looking at over the top content distribution strategies,” he says. “They're looking at how to improve installation costs and they're considering where they could replace the STB with a CI+ model.”

He believes the potential for cost savings through lower hardware costs is winning operators over. “It's not a 'nice' technology to increase retention of the customer; it's literally going to the bottom line.”

Other vendors also report promising developments. Ronald Brockmann, managing director, Europe, at cloud-based interactive TV technology specialist ActiveVideo Networks, says his company is working with cable companies, IPTV companies and hybrid terrestrial/satellite providers to assess the potential of CI+ enabled OTT and VoD services.

In March, interactivity specialist Strategy and Technology (S&T) announced the successful completion of a proof of concept trial with Belgian cable operator Telenet, to deliver EPG and VoD. “We haven't yet got a deployment, but I think that is not too far away,” says David Cutts, managing director at S&T.

NDS is supporting Kabel Deutschland's CI+ deployment, so perhaps it's not surprising that Howard Silverman, NDS senior product marketing manager for CA and DRM, picks out Germany as a current and future CI+ hotspot. But he remains cautious. “There is no wide-scale deployment, so it's still early days,” he says. “It feels like operators want to address this in case it takes off. I do know that major TV manufacturers are jumping on board and you know how trends work in the entertainment business: often there is a lot of hype that gets interest moving. We take it seriously because our customers are seeking to use it, but at the moment we don't see any large-scale deployments - perhaps because consumers aren't necessarily so averse to an STB.”

While cable operators seem most keen, it would be wrong to assume that only they are interested, says Irdeto's Wajs. “The other market that has been good for us has been the digital terrestrial operators and it'll have an impact on satellite as well, although that will be a bit slower,” he says.

ActiveVideo's Brockmann also regards all types of operator as potential customers. “It's not necessarily true that there's one category of operator who this suits best,” he says. “Different operators may have different views of the desirability of a STB-less model: CI+ can only do limited PVR - you can pause live TV - but for a certain segment of the market that might not be necessary.”

Although IPTV may not at first glance look like an ideal bedfellow for CI+, there are also IPTV operators taking it seriously, according to S&T's Cutts. But Cabot's Collis is unconvinced. “As it stands, CI+ is not really designed around IP delivered content,” he says. “It would need a proof of concept. Someone would have to get something out there before the operators used it.”

Reasons to be sceptical
There are other reasons to be sceptical about the specification's prospects. “To what extent can CI+ middleware compete with the specification in most pay TV platforms today?” asks NDS's Silverman. “Most people would say MHEG-5 doesn't match up to the middleware in an STB, whether from OpenTV or NDS. That could be a major factor for operators that believe a strong brand and rich functionality is key to their offer.”

He also still has some concerns over security: “The compliance and security of the host device is in the hands of the TV or device manufacturer. If a manufacturer doesn't implement the security in the correct way that could undermine the business of the payTV operator.”

Finally, there is a cost issue. “While CAMs have come down in price it's still pretty close to the cost of a STB with a superior functionality,” says Silverman.

There are still some other technical problems to solve. “There are going to be niggling compatibility problems,” says Cabot's Collis. “Some TV manufacturers use an earlier version of the specification. It's going to take the rest of this year before everything's ironed out.”

There have also been grumbles over the use of the PCMCIA interface (inherited from DVB-CI). “Manufacturers don't necessarily want to use such a big and expensive interface, especially on low end STBs,” Collis explains. “So maybe you could use USB or express cards, which have much smaller form factors? I'm sure the CI+ guys will look at that, especially for IP services.”

Finally, there is a concern over the relatively low number of MHEG-5 software developers. “It offers an extra bit of pain, because you've got to find the expertise you need,” says Collis. “So a future version might support HTML JavaScript as well.”

Resolving the DVR issue
Nonetheless, there still seems to be an underlying optimism that CI+ provides manufacturers with a flexible way to develop devices and business models. Irdeto's Wajs points to the potential of a software-only, rather than smartcard-based, CI+ solution. “That has some interesting advantages,” he says. “It's a very stable platform. We would certainly expect interest from cable operators and some terrestrial markets as well, where people want to minimise costs and upgrade security.”

There are various other ways that the DVR issue could be resolved too. “There will be solutions where CI+ is used with DVR in a home network,” Wajs points out. “It becomes a question of the DVR functionality being integrated in the TV set and to what extent it's integrated with the EPG of the operator. I'm sure as the technology matures we will see more advanced features being offered.”

ActiveVideo's Brockmann speculates as to whether network-based PVR solutions could be used instead; while Vazquez has another suggestion: “With the CI+ module you could have a hard drive in the TV set or use a USB connection to add a hard drive to the TV.”

Ultimately, we will have to wait and see how economics and consumer behaviour shape the way CI+ is used. It's not unreasonable to retain scepticism at this early stage, perhaps particularly because no-one is yet quite sure how appealing that USP - the fact you don't have to have an STB - will actually be to consumers.

“I don't think CI+ is going to negate the need for STBs,” says Collis. “There's still going to be a market for STB-based paid-for services that gives operators advantages you can't get with CI+. If there's a big user base that supports it you can target it at relatively low cost - but if a customer doesn't have support for CI+, if they don't have that slot, how do you get them pay TV services? They'll still need the STB.”

“Operators say CI+ may be niche, but this may be a trend that could pick up,” says Silverman. “In some markets consumers like the widescreens and if they can avoid having to fiddle with wires and an additional box that's good too. But I would say, if you're going to have a great widescreen TV with an HD PVR and a nice hard drive, our experience with all markets is that people have no problem with the STB.

“If the TV is going to be the main entertainment point in the home I think the operator will want to invest in it, making sure you have a really great user experience with integrated, advanced services - and CI+ and MHEG-5 doesn't support that, at least not today.”