DRM Struggles to Fit In

The ability of cable operators to protect over-the-top (OTT) and second- and third-screen content as it moves through the home - and beyond - is a vital and rapidly evolving area.

The digital rights management (DRM) arena is taking a similar path as other product introduction cycles in the history of cable and telecommunications more generally. It goes like this: In an effort to get revenues flowing and establish first competitor status, operators and vendors put systems in the field that get the job done, but not in an overly efficient manner. In time, chip integration, design evolution and other advancements enable systems to be reengineered in a way that is far easier to deploy and manage. In other words, historically, speed to market was favored over efficiency.

The industry and its subscribers are entering the age of higher efficiency. The importance of reaching mobile devices with content is well established. Now, ways are being sought to do it more elegantly.

DRM is designed to do a couple of things. It keeps content on the device for which it is intended (in other words, it avoids piracy) and enforces rules, such as a prohibition on playing more than once or after a certain date. DRM is a particularly tricky technology to streamline because it is so deeply enmeshed with the adaptive bitrate streaming technologies themselves, which are going through their own evolutionary process.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are two sets of variables. On one level, operators must reach Apple's iOS, Android and Windows Phone via streaming platforms customized for each. On top of that, each of these could use DRM technology from any number of vendors.

Clearly, that is a high level of complexity. "It was a problem because there were so many DRMs," said Richard Frankland, Irdeto's regional vice president for sales for the Americas.

The simplification process has been ongoing for a couple of years. Vendors' goal is to make it possible for a number of DRM solutions - such as Microsoft's PlayReady, Verimatrix, Google's Widevine and Adobe Flash - to be used on all of the operating systems. One step is to reduce the number of DRM choices, and a number of smaller proprietary and open source approaches are fading away. "It was difficult to get any meaningful critical mass," Frankland said. "As people realized the problem, they changed focus. Part of it was customer driven. [Operators] started a migration to leading standards."

Vendors also are offering technology that lets the various streaming systems work with that smaller group of DRM solutions, which eliminates the need for operators to choose between vendors. "Do you prepackage things for all the variations - for instance, three streaming, and three DRMs, or use what companies like us are trying to create so cable companies don't have to think about it?" said Jim Denenny, Concurrent's (NASDAQ:CCUR) vice president of strategic marketing for online media solutions.

An example of the road to simplification that the vendor community has embarked on is the announcement earlier this month that Concurrent will incorporate AuthenTec's DRM approach into its eFactor platform. This will enable the Concurrent platform to work seamlessly with PlayReady, Denenny said.

In the long run, cable operators want a converged approach to managing both the IP and traditional QAM-based content realms. These will continue to be disparate systems, of course. But there is no reason that they shouldn't work together, said Steve Christian, the vice president of marketing for Verimatrix.

The idea is to drive the efficiencies even higher into the stack. "The 'one pane of glass' is the operator management interface," Christian said. "It is an abstract view of the way you deliver products over different types of networks: [legacy] cable, OTT and IPTV. It includes the device types, the packages of content the subscriber is using [and other things]. It binds those things to the entitlements and policies. It's a master database that runs the security system and is a slave to the OSS/BSS systems."

That makes sense. It also shows how the elements of modern cable systems are deeply entwined. It is difficult if not impossible to protect IP content without impacting the streaming itself. It also is far more expedient to find a way of overseeing both IP and legacy QAM distribution and security in what is the same logical - if not physical - system.

Christian said systems won't all converge - but the presentation of data to cable operators must. It is relevant for the industry in general, however: "When a cable operator adds OTT distribution, they tend to end up with one distribution platform for [traditional] cable and one for streaming. [Operators] want to be able to look to one provider to unify the management of security even though the protocosl in those systems are different and won't converge."

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at carl@btreport.net.

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