Technology to watch out for: DTCP-IP

I’ve been meaning to explain this acronym for a while, and a recent announcement from the DLNA (who create some of the standards that are supposed to make home streaming simpler) is probably as good a reason as any.

Regular readers will recall that I’ve seen various recorders over recent months that have fairly advanced functionality, allowing you to record programmes on the hard disk and then watch it over the home network, and predicted we’ll see more of them.

For example, last year’s Panasonic FreeviewHD recorder could do the trick, and it’s due to come to the Humax FreeviewHD boxes too. But, right now, it’s a little limited, because of content control issues – that’s the rules that say, for instance, that some material broadcast on FreeviewHD can only be copied to disc once.

Now, I know that to some, the very idea of content controls is horrific, but I think for now at least we have to accept that they’re here, and take organisations like the BBC at their word when they say that without them, they probably wouldn’t be able to broadcast some of the material from big Hollywood studios in HD, unencrypted. Whether that’s really the case is an argument for another day; for now, we have to live with this technology.

Streaming content

One of the consequences of content controls is that it can make home streaming fiddly (and, to be frank, DLNA can be quirky at best of times, as it is). With the Panasonic recorder I looked at last summer, for example, I could access both SD and HD content remotely on a 2010 Panasonic TV set, but I couldn’t access anything at all on my 2009 Panasonic; a Sony set with DLNA support could access only the SD material from the recorder.

At a Humax presentation where in-home streaming was discussed, we were told that, initially at least, streaming would be from the Humax recorders to other Humax set top boxes.

Essentially, a bit like the early days of WiFi, if you want a painless experience making it all work together, and all your TV programmes available to watch on any set, you’re best to stick to one brand. Go with a Panasonic recorder, and make sure you have recent Panasonic TVs on which to watch over the network. Or go with a Humax recorder, and put one of their set top boxes underneath each telly.

If you’re starting from scratch, that’s simple enough, but of course many of us aren’t, and we can’t afford to replace everything.

Why does this happen? It’s because of those content controls; if a programme is protected so that it can only be copied to disc once, or perhaps isn’t supposed to be copied at all, sending it over the home network to a random device about which you know nothing is not exactly within the spirit of things, is it? That other device could be a PC with software to record the stream, for instance, or a disc recorder.

Introducing DTCP-IP

And this is where DTCP-IP comes in; it’s a mechanism by which devices on a network can establish a secured connection with each other (a bit like using SSL for a browser) and use that connection to transfer not just the content, but also the information about how it has to be protected, such as whether it can be saved, or sent to an analogue output, and so on.

You might think from the name that it’s something to do with the TCP/IP networking protocol, but that’s not wholly accurate; the DTCP part actually stands for Digital Transmission Content Protection, which is the basic encryption and control system. It can be used over a variety of connections, including FireWire, but what we’re interested in here is DTCP-IP, and in this case the IP stands for Internet Protocol.

In other words, DTCP-IP is the variant of the Digital Transmission Content Protection system that works over the internet and home networks. It’s licensed to manufacturers by a group called the DTLA, and the major backers of the standard including Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba.

In late May, the DLNA issued some new guidelines which included the use of DTCP-IP (and much overuse of the word ‘leverage’, but I digress). This will hopefully mean that more manufacturers will include the technology in their products.

What does that mean?

In theory, if DTCP-IP becomes more widespread in devices that can access your home network, such as TVs and media players, as long as those devices that can share it also step up to the plate, then instead of having to stick with a single vendor to ensure compatibility, you’ll be able to pick and choose your equipment, and know that even if you have a Sony TV in the bedroom and a Panasonic recorder in the living room, you’ll be able to watch recorded shows in bed, without any problems, including those in high definition.

There are almost certainly bound to be teething problems; as many people pointed out when RegHardware looked in more detail at DLNA, if two boxes say ‘DLNA certified’ on them, there’s still no real guarantee that one will play content from the other, and right now a lot of consumers could be forgiven for thinking that DLNA certification is a bit of a mess.

If that can be sorted out, however – which means specifying which file formats players and servers should handle – then DTCP-IP will make it simpler to pick the kit you want for home streaming. And potentially, it’s not just streaming from your home recorder to your TV that’s involved here. It can be used over the wider internet too, and that could make it easier for online movie services to be available on a bigger range of streamers – instead of having to restrict, say, LoveFilm to boxes that have done a deal and had their software tested for security, they could be available to any that support DTCP-IP.

DTCP-IP is also – as far as broadcasters and content owners are concerned – a crucial component of the long mooted move to ‘home gateways,’ where a single multi-tuner receiver somewhere in the house is the only thing connected to the cable, satellite, or internet feed, with all the content available on any screen in the home.

One to watch

So, you might not have heard of it yet – and it’s probably unlikely that you’ll see stickers on boxes proudly proclaiming ‘Supports DTCP-IP’ – but I think this is a technology to watch out for, especially if you want to make the most of your home network, and watch your recorded TV wherever you like.

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