Deepak Upreti Head Consumer Product and Devices, Reliance Digital TV, Reliance Communications Ltd.

Technical inter-operability of STBs among different operators is not practical and would add high costs for both consumers and operators. All additional cost burdens would be passed on to the end consumer, which will not serve the purpose.

For almost a decade, I have been hearing this term Interoperability of set-top boxes. Saw organizations coming up with different ways to make this happen but all in vain. In very simple terms, interoperability means the consumer is free to choose any Digital TV operator for availing digital TV services without incurring additional cost.

There are primarily two kinds of STB interoperability.

Commercial interoperability. This will allow consumers to return their existing STB to the current operator and get a security refund (as previously defined by the regulator). This can be utilized for migrating to a new operator.

Technical interoperability. Theoretically, this allows the consumer to use his existing STB with a new operator. This may include realignment of the dish antenna to the satellite of a new operator.

As an industry observer for more than a decade, I have seen the thrust has been on technical interoperability that includes the introduction of CAM (conditional access module). The cost of CAM was more than the new STB cost and that made it a financially unviable solution. One of the ways that have been recently proposed is to use smart cards but it does not appear to be the solution and it also really ends there! Read on to explore more.

In this fast growing technological era, embedded software and SoC-based advanced security are game changers for CAS. The concept of a physical smart card is fast losing relevance in an era of new technological advancement. Almost all major CAS vendors around the world have migrated to card-less CAS.

Card-less solutions have multiple advantages over a physical smart card:

  • lMore secure. inbuilt security in SoC with dedicated security core
  • lFaster channel zap-time. due to less time required for signal decryption
  • lMore cost-effective. CapEx and OpEx

So, the concept of using physical smart cards for technical interoperability does not appear to survive longer!

India is perhaps one of the major markets in the world with so many DTH and
cable operators but unfortunately, making their devices interoperable will be like telling MAC OSX to run MS windows apps and MS windows to run MAC OSX apps!

There are n number of challenges alongwith financial impact on the consumer and operator:

Incompatibility in modulation schemes and compression standards. Indian operators follow different modulation schemes like DVB-C, DVB-S, DVB-S2, and the new DVB-S2X. The compression standards are also different ranging from MPEG2, MPEG4, to H.265. This is a major bottleneck for implementation of technical interoperability.

Modulation schemes. DVB-S/S2/S2X Even though new SoCs are available with integrated demodulators with backward compatibility features, yet they may not be usable as some of the parameters in use, by an operator, may not be supported by the SoC or the tuner.

If operator A has headend equipped with infra that supports DVB-S2X and operator B has infra that supports only DVB-S2, then STBs deployed by operator A may be useable in operator B's network but the reverse is not possible. Operator B's STBs will not receive signals in operator A's network.

  • lCompression standards. Video codecs MPEG2/H.264/H.265
  • lAudio codecs. MP2, AAC, AAC v2, Dolby

There are some operators in the Indian market who continue to seed MPEG2 STBs due to the low cost of the SoC. In such cases, the STBs would be unusable for operators who are using newer compression standards.

There is a royalty cost for compression standard that is infused in the chipset while the chipset is manufactured for an operator depending on his requirements. Having multiple compression standards will lead to higher STB cost and in turn has a price impact on the consumer. Similarly, there is a cost for audio codecs like Dolby Digital which provides better user experience. The royalty for the same has to be paid and the feature needs to be incorporated at the time of the SoC manufacturing. Some operators deploy different royalty-based copy protection mechanism like Macrovision, HDCP, and DCS.

If operator A has headend and STBs equipped with infra that supports only Dolby Digital and operator B has infra that supports only MP2, then STBs deployed by operator B will be unusable for operator A's service as they will not decode Dolby.

Incompatibility in the remote control nit. Indian operators have different kinds of remotes which are poles apart in terms of key layouts, key labelling, and functionality etc. A back key on one operator is expected to work as channel swap while another operator uses it for navigating to the previous menu. Some operators have different keys for channel swap and menu back function.

Cost of additional hardware. As described earlier, worldwide, DTH and cable operators are moving to card-less CAS in order to save the operational, service, and product cost which can easily range between $3 and USD 3.5 per STB. Addition of smart card connector in STB adds anywhere from USD 0.70 to USD 1 per STB. Cost of physical smart card is more than USD 1. Field service and maintenance cost resulting from dust and humid conditions in Indian homes also add cost other than customer inconvenience.

Security issues. There could be a case of additional security risks due to external bus connectivity between the processor and smart card.

CAS certification cost. In order to ensure trouble free and secure operation with a DTH operator, the STB of the other operator will require certification from the CAS vendor and TA agency. This may cost an average of USD 30,000 per STB model, plus maintenance charges for future support.

Middleware (MW) porting. Implementing the proposed interop solution will involve porting of MW in every STB model of other operators. There are a series of activities in porting with cost implications. Porting of MW is highly dependent on the STB hardware and low-level software which includes but is not limited to CPU processing power, RAM, flash memory configuration, specific OS, and drivers.

STB models regularly need updated on-chip and off-chip drivers and testing support from STB manufacturer/OEM and chipset manufacturers for improved product performance. Each entity in the chain would charge for their service, leading to additional costs which will be an extra burden on the consumer. Porting and testing a new MW is expensive and can cost from USD 100,000 to USD 300,000 per STB model. MW needs regular support for upgradation and maintenance, this too adds to costs.

Support for device drivers. Indian operators develop different external devices in conjunction with their STBs to provide additional features and functionalities. This can range from different USB attached devices such as hard disk, Wi-Fi/BT/FM dongles to LNBs such as Unicable I and Unicable II whose device drivers and operating procedures are highly customized for an operator. Other operators may not be able to support these features and may require replacement of some material/devices.

The concept of interoperability is an excellent idea for the benefit of consumers, however, I believe Commercial Interoperability will serve the purpose better in reducing the burden on the consumer.

Technical support. Software upgrades and hardware repair will not be a challenge for the new operator if the STB is deployed by them.

Reduction in e-waste. Once the consumer migrates to another operator, the previous operator can collect the old device and refurbish it to use for servicing customers.

In my opinion, technical inter operability of STBs among different operators is not practical and would add high costs for both consumers and operators. Ultimately all additional cost burdens would be passed on to the end consumer, which will not serve the purpose. Instead, the regulator should provide a policy of commercial interoperability, where a consumer should have an option to return the CPE to the current operator and claim the refund, if applicable, and avail a new CPE from the new operator. This will result in a far better consumer experience with minimal cost burden on the consumer!