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Streaming Media
Rite of Passage: Sony Lays Down Cable's Future
Posted May 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Question: When is MPEG not MPEG? Answer: When it is an encryption technology and not just a compression tool.

This distinction is at the heart of Sony's new Passage cable network system. Some are calling this the "Holy Grail" of the cable world—a pretty strong characterization, but one that may well be true. By leveraging MPEG not just for compression but also for encryption, Sony aims to revolutionize the cable industry, something that is desperately needed.

Passage will allow cable operators to offer new services, including video-on-demand (VOD), without having to do a "fork-lift" upgrade of their systems. Rather, Passage works right alongside their existing cable network protocols to offer new services while still delivering the same services to existing set-top boxes (STBs).

In the past, all cable networks were essentially one of two proprietary systems—Motorola or Scientific Atlanta. Unfortunately, those companies weren't opening up to new and alternative services fast enough, nor were prices dropping without competition. For example, although TiVo-style PVRs have been around for several years and available from the satellite companies for even longer, cable only this year got a PVR for its networks, and even that was rather plain-Jane. The cable industry tried to respond with their OpenCable initiative, but this was a "vanilla" offering based in part on a combination of these two proprietary solutions with some badly needed enhancements.

Even if this offering proved effective, the OpenCable system would still be proprietary, with the primary advantage being that potentially more vendors could offer the hardware and thus introduce some competitive pricing.

Enter Sony. After reviewing the existing problem, Sony came up with a truly wonderful idea. Rather than attempt to recreate just another proprietary system (with new encrypting technologies, new decoding technologies, perhaps new cable requirements and STB upgrades), they cleverly took a cue from video streaming technology to simplify the whole effort.

Sony, naturally enough, has extensive experience with MPEG as part of its consumer electronics business. So it shouldn't be surprising that engineers at Sony realized that if they took the typical MPEG stream and removed just a bit of the information regarding key frames, etc., out of the flow, they could send the remaining data unencrypted over the network. This "open" MPEG stream, then, since it lacks some essential details, would be unintelligible to anyone intercepting the transmission. It would be virtually impossible to reconstruct the original frames without the missing data. Hence, any value-added services carried via these MPEG streams would be virtually immune to piracy.

With Passage, then, Sony only had to develop technology to encrypt a small percentage of the data—5% or so—to protect the various MPEG streams that contain the premium channels, VOD programming, and such. This could be accomplished with existing hardware with no delays—unlike encoding the entire stream and having to decode it at the STB.

What this does for cable networks is extraordinary. By requiring only a 5% additional overhead, the Passage technology does not impact the ability of existing cable to carry content. By using MPEG, Sony can leverage all the existing chipsets and firmware tailored around encoding/decoding and presenting MPEG streams. This keeps pricing and complexity down, while remaining standards-based.

In addition, Sony wisely chose to create the STB's user interface using contemporary browser-based software with HTML and JavaScript support. This will allow easy customization for added-revenue services including VOD and interactive program guides.

Finally, Sony is licensing Passage on modest terms to any and all vendors so Passage won't become a new "closed" system like the cable systems of the past. They have already signed more than a dozen hardware vendors to incorporate Passage support into their product lines.

Cable operators can now incorporate new services, like Video-on-Demand, over the same network as their existing Motorola or Scientific Atlanta basic cable offerings. This without asking consumers to trade out boxes. Since Passage is based on consumer technology, the cost of entry is low. So cable operators are encouraged then to incorporate the Passage technology into their systems quickly.

For the cable operator, Passage requires a simple rack-mounted encoder that supports both the existing set of conditional access services (premium channels, etc.) as well as the new alternative services. Passage readily ties in with SMS and billing systems as well.

For consumers, Passage is an STB that they can purchase and keep with them as they move. Boxes from various vendors supporting Passage will be available through major consumer outlets within the next year, according to Sony.

Sony itself offers several STB models in their DHG series. The basic model, the DHG-55, for example, also includes a DOCSIS 1.1-capable cable modem along with support for DVB MPEG-2 and AVTEF for interactive capabilities. The top-end model, the DHG-MC75, includes the Digeo Moxi Media Center services with optional DVD drive. Pricing is not yet set.

Finally, Sony has already signed one major cable operator, Channel Communications—with almost seven million subscribers—to use Passage. Sony anticipates other operators will join as Passage STBs become generally available over the next one to two years.

For video content developers, now is the time to "call your cable operator" and ask them to upgrade to Passage.

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