Hubster: The WLAN Copyright Wars

By Ed Sutherland

January 29, 2002

Bits beaming freely over peoples' home WLANs has the intellectual property folks all in a tizzy...again. So here's the latest news in digital rights management over 802.11.

Home entertainment gateways have become the center of a new struggle between consumers and content developers. As home networks evolve beyond PCs to entertainment devices, questions over copyrights are crowding out computer concerns. At the center of it all is 802.11 as the prime enabling technology in these cutting-edge home networks.

The Moxi Media Server, unveiled by WebTV creator Steve Perlman at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, is only one of many digital hub devices from Microsoft and other vendors set to hit the market with a blast. These hubs manage, store and distribute a vast amount of content, including TV broadcasts, movies, audio and Web information. Where VCRs introduced the ability to save video, and boxes like Tivo, ReplayTV, or UltimateTV introduced time-shifting -- recording broadcasts to disk then playing at your convenience -- digital hubs distribute on-demand content to anywhere in the home, or on the Internet. Many of these hubs employ 802.11 as the backbone of the new home entertainment networks.

Forrester Research predicts that the number of devices able to receive and manage broadband signals and the Internet will jump from 5 million today to 25 million in 2006. Forrester stated that "802.11-based systems will be the mainstay of early home gateways." Hollywood, TV studios, and other content creators are up-in-arms over the news and are making plans to pull the plug on these entertainment centers.

Recently, the Copy Protection Working Group, a consortium of TV networks, Hollywood studios, and consumer electronics firms, began pushing for invisible and inaudible tags added to broadcasts. The tags, when read by TVs, DVD players, personal video recorders, and other devices, would then permit or forbid a broadcast to be stored digitally.

Unlike the battle between Hollywood and Napster, wireless operators cannot sit on the sidelines, says Forrester. Indeed, content companies will require broadband providers such as AT&T and DirectTV to ensure home entertainment gateways prevent consumers from pirating, according to Forrester.

Philips, which makes the TiVo with Sony, is reportedly discussing a plan with other consumer electronics companies to extend digital rights management (DRM) to wireless devices.

DRM has been used to control the distribution of compact discs, DVDs and e-books, but Philips believes the plans underway to use DRM principles with home digital entertainment networks won't work with wireless.

The only existing specification directed at entertainment hubs is Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP). Created by Intel, Hitachi, Sony, Toshiba and Matsushita -- collectively known as 5C -- DTCP precedes the wireless home and instead focuses on high-speed digital connections, such as Firewire. The encryption and decryption of digital content could tax a wireless network, not to mention the computational strength of your video recorder or DVD player.

Proposals from networking giant Cisco and consumer electronics firm Thomson Multimedia aren't the right 'fit' for wireless home digital gateways, according to Leon Husson, a Philips executive vice president of consumer businesses.

Cisco's proposal, Open Conditional Content Access Management (Occam), is hardware-based DRM using the 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard to control content broadcast to interactive TV and portable devices.

Thomson Multimedia demonstrated its proposed SmartRight copy protection and content management arrangement at the recent CES. While DTCP encrypts content where devices connect, SmartRight encryption works end-to-end, from the moment a broadcast enters your home to the moment it is viewed. By understanding "entitlement control messages," content can never be copied or it can be duplicated only a set number of times.

Viaquo Corporation's ViaSeal is another contender for managing digital hubs.

While Philips, Thomson, Cisco and others work to find just the right mix, Steve Vonder Haar, a Yankee Group wireless analyst, says the parties are "not even close to a standard."

How this issue is resolved may be decided in court. The motion picture industry has already sued SonicBLUE over the ability of its ReplayTV 4000 device to send digital content over the Internet. Forrester says home gateways could be sued under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Whatever the outcome, a decision is needed -- 802.11a, the 54 Mbps technology that will speed video streaming -- is set to reach critical mass next year.

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