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FCC Inches Towards Net-Agnostic Gateways

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Wednesday in favor of items that could move the industry towards a new breed of network-agnostic gateway adapters in the long term, while addressing some of the problems with CableCARD in the short term.

Both items are byproducts of the FCC's proposed National Broadband Plan, which is pursuing the notion that a new lineup of smart, Internet-connected video devices can help spur consumer electronics innovation and drive consumer adoption of broadband services. (See FCC Floats 'Simple' Gateway, CableCARD Rules and Whither the CableCARD?)

Opening the gateway
The FCC's Notice of Inquiry (NOI) into the gateway concept takes the longer-term view, seeking the development of standardized adapters that can allow broadband-capable set-tops to plug into Web-sourced video and support the TV services provided by all multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), which include cable operators, telcos, and satellite TV operators.

The technical details of those gateways or "functional equivalents" still need to be sorted out, but the general idea centers on a standard interface that sits between the set-top, TV, or PC and the MVPD's service. For now, the FCC is referring to this yet-to-be-developed go-between as the "AllVid" adapter. The gateway NOI presumably would be followed by a more formal rulemaking proposal.

The hope is that this future interface will still let MSOs and carriers upgrade and innovate their networks without having to worry about making wholesale set-top changeouts. Ideally, the gateway would also allow consumers to buy a fancy set-top at retail and be assured that it would be nationally portable and work with any MVPD's service.

Tweaking the CableCARD
The nearer-term proceeding centers on newly proposed rules that try to iron out some of the shortcomings associated with today's CableCARD regime, and to supply a remedy of sorts until the AllVid approach is in place.

The current separable set-top security rules, put into place in July 2007, largely applied to the cable industry and, so far, have failed to create much of a retail market for cable set-tops and cable-ready digital TVs. (See CableCARD Update.)

The FCC's Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) into this area proposes ways to make CableCARD pricing and billing more transparent, to streamline CableCARD installs, and to "clarify" certification requirements for the devices themselves.

In addition to addressing some issues that have troubled consumers, the proposal will also seek to fix many of the CableCARD-related flaws that TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) has vocalized. (See TiVo Seeks CableCARD Cost Probe and TiVo Gives Cable Both Barrels .)

The FCC, as anticipated, also inserted a proposal to allow cable operators to buy and deploy a new breed of relatively inexpensive hi-def Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) boxes with integrated security. MSOs have pushed for such an exemption, arguing that the devices will play a key role in analog bandwidth reclamation efforts and give operators a low-cost HD box option. (See HD-DTA Battle Heats Up and FCC Chews on HD-DTA Exemption .)

The FCC accepted that argument, holding that the relatively simple one-way HD-DTA will help to serve as a placeholder as the agency vets alternative separable security methods and the AllVid concept. Still, the HD-DTA piece of the proposed rule change is likely to meet with some static, as organizations like the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) have opposed earlier waiver requests involving HD-DTAs. (See CEA Attacks Cable One HD Plan.)

As of this writing, the FCC has yet to release an official timeline target for either item. However, the Commission's draft of the National Broadband Plan calls for the new CableCARD rules to be in place by the fall of 2010, and for standards-based gateways to start to replace traditional set-tops by Dec. 31, 2012.

Cable guys: no complaints
National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) president and CEO Kyle McSlarrow applauded both items since they appeared to line up well with the Association's wishes on the matter.

The gateway NOI "appears to be consistent with a series of consumer principles governing video devices" the organization submitted to the FCC in mid-March, McSlarrow said, in a statement. (See Cable's Seven-Fold Path.)

He also welcomed the potential new CableCARD rules, calling the low-cost DTAs a "vital tool for all cable systems to recapture bandwidth" and provide a range of new services.

American Cable Association (ACA) president and CEO Matthew Polka agreed, noting that the devices would give its members (mostly small and mid-sized independent operators) greater flexibility as they seek out ways to reclaim analog bandwidth and apply it toward more advanced services. (See ACA Wants Action on Evolution's HD Box Waiver .)

The original FCC HD-DTA proposal was believed to apply only to systems with 552MHz or less of activated capacity -- a small fraction of the market. The actual rulemaking proposal appears to be going much wider and apply to all cable systems.

If those rules go through, it shouldn't take long for the HD-DTA market to ramp up. Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) has already developed a chip, and more than a dozen vendors have expressed interest in making the devices, which are expected to cost less than $50 per unit. (See Cable ONE Looks to Pump Up HD-DTA Volumes .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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