Protecting the New Crown Jewels: UltraHD Security

By John Carlucci, Alticast

The appeal of UltraHD video to consumers is obvious given that its resolution is four times that of HD, as well as the superior color, contrast and brightness enabled by high dynamic range (HDR).

Combine these advantages with consumers buying UltraHD-ready TV sets in increasing numbers, the growing amount of 4K content and the availability of UltraHD set-top boxes, and you would naturally expect operators to have already rolled UltraHD across their footprints. However, with a few exceptions such as Videotron and others, operators have been slow to offer UltraHD.

So what is the holdup given the perfect storm of consumer demand, more and more content and all the necessary hardware is already available? In a word, security.

The majority of the currently available UltraHD content consists of new movies and high profile TV shows like Netflix's (NASDAQ:NFLX) "House of Cards," with live sporting events expected to follow soon. Because of the premium nature of this content - shot in 4K or higher resolutions - the owners are naturally quite interested in increasing security levels to prevent illegal copying.

Fortunately, viable security solutions exist, and most operators already have considerable experience with them. Operators face the challenge of choosing a security solution that will serve them into the future and that ideally can span all their various platforms.

One obvious choice is a digital rights management (DRM) system using either the 128-bit or 256-bit version of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). DRM systems with such key strength are a good option as they provide the robust security required by UltraHD. Additionally, most operators are already using DRM to ensure secure delivery of their OTT multiscreen services. However, securely delivering UltraHD over their traditional video distribution network with the current conditional access (CA) systems they use is problematic. This is because these CA systems and MSOs' set-top boxes use less secure 64-bit keys.

Simply put, MSOs must choose between employing the same DRM systems they use for OTT delivery for their traditional networks or use a CA system with a higher strength key. To employ DRM across all their platforms is an investment, but then again, so is upgrading the CA their traditional networks use to 128 or 256-bit keys.

Obviously, operators will have to make a choice, and probably sooner rather than later. Beyond meeting subscriber demand and the lure of additional revenues, operators must get their UltraHD services up today, not tomorrow, in order to counter aggressive competitors. Already satellite juggernaut DirecTV (NYSE:T) is expanding the amount of UltraHD content it offers, and OTT players Netflix and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) are leveraging MSOs' own cable modem services to deliver UltraHD. Everyone can agree that subscriber churn is costly, and losing customers for lack of UltraHD is clearly not an option. In an Intelsat survey of video service providers, 69% of respondents cited reduced churn as a beneficial or moderately beneficial impact of UltraHD.

Despite the cost, time and effort required to ensure the secure delivery of UltraHD across all their platforms, MSOs should not look at this requirement as a burden, but rather an opportunity to increase security, generate new revenue and keep subscribers from jumping ship to the competition.

Whether it is going with DRM or CA, operators need to keep in mind that what they do with UltraHD is something they will eventually have to do with all of their content going forward. Rather than choosing a point solution that addresses the security requirements of UltraHD, operators should take the opportunity to carefully evaluate their options and choose a solution that can grow with them over time.

John Carlucci is president and CTO of Alticast US. Reach him at

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