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Consumer Groups to FCC: Redo the Set-Top Rules

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner


A handful of consumer groups are urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rev up a new rulemaking process that would establish the technical underpinnings for a "standards-based gateway" that can access video services from all multichannel video programming (MVPDs) -- meaning cable, satellite operators, and the telcos -- and pipe in video from the Web. (See Consumer Groups Want New Set-Top Rules.)

That group -- made up of Public Knowledge, Free Press , Media Access Project , Consumers Union of U.S. Inc. , CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, and the Open Technology Initiative of New America Foundation -- is also asking the FCC, in its 45-page petition filed Friday, to combine all its open proceedings related to the commercial availability of set-top boxes and device interoperability, and to freeze all separable security waivers until the new rules are updates. IPCO LLC, a set-top maker, is also asking the FCC to sunset all the existing waivers, claiming that they're damaging its ability to sell inexpensive "CableCARD-compliant" boxes. (See Box Maker Blames FCC for Everything.)

At this point, the FCC, as part of its broader effort to develop a National Broadband Plan, is only seeking comments on how the Commission can "encourage innovation" in the video device market and spur the development of boxes that can deliver traditional video services from MVPDs and provide a bridge to Web-sourced video content. Separately, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) has asked the Commission to open a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on the all-MVPD issue, hoping it may produce a network-agnostic interface for retail devices that would apply to all video service providers, and not just cable. (See FCC: Retail Set-Top Is Possible, at Least and Whither the CableCARD?)

"This [FCC] inquiry is an important first step... but much more needs to be done," the consumer group argued.

The group also contends that new rulemaking is required because "there is no competitive market for video devices at present," though it does allow that market conditions haven't prevented the emergence of over-the-top boxmakers/service providers such as Boxee and Roku Inc. . (See Roku 'Store' Opens With 10 Channels , Roll Video: The Boxee Box Event , and Ronen: Boxee Isn't a Cable Killer.)

Their beef is the separable security rule that took effect in July 2007, noting that the mandate and cable's subsequent use of the CableCARD has failed to create a vibrant retail market for set-top boxes, with TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) and Digeo Inc. (now part of Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS)) among a small group that presently offers CableCARD-capable set-top boxes at retail. And those host boxes are inherently one-way, meaning they can't access switched digital video (SDV) channels without a separate, somewhat kluge, Tuning Adapter. (See CableLabs Stamps SDV Tuning Adapters .)

The group also argues that consumers have not embraced tru2way at retail in a big way, referring to a CableLabs -specified platform that creates a common headend and set-top middleware architecture that supports video-on-demand (VoD), SDV, and other interactive applications. Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) is the only TV maker that's tried to sell tru2way-certified TVs at retail, though more rampant tru2way retail efforts aren't expected to occur until the nation's largest MSOs get their headends prepared for the platform. (See Denver, Chicago First to Get Tru2way TVs, Comcast Wired for Tru2way by Year's End , and Tru2way's Retail Forecast: Cloudy .)

All-MVPD offers some common ground
But the group agrees with NCTA that the FCC should look into the development of a standards-based "all-MVPD," something that DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV), the nation's largest satellite TV provider, continues to resist. (See DirecTV Disses Cable's 'All-MVPD' Plans.)

NCTA has suggested HDMI-CEC (High-Definition Multimedia Interface -- Consumer Electronics Control) as a possible common interface, but the petition group has a few ideas of its own, proposing a "universal video gateway" that provides common, standard methods for five elements: a physical connection, a communications protocol, authentication, service discovery, and content encoding. (See Cable's Got Ideas for a Universal Retail Box .)

As for the interface, they think the gateway should provide, at minimum, a 100Mbit/s Ethernet port, and perhaps a wireless interface using WiFi, or something else.

The result would "serve as a common bridge between diverse MVPDs and consumer video devices," reiterating a position that CableCARD isn't the answer because it was designed to be solely a cable technology.

Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), however, is using the CableCARD to separate security in its more advanced digital boxes. Last fall, Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) "validated" the VueKey, a security module that borrows from the CableCARD design, but is optimized for IPTV. Verizon's considered to be a likely candidate for the VueKey. (See ATIS OKs CableCARD for IPTV.)

Regardless, many industry sources in cable and outside of it believe that any future, separable security option will involve renewable, downloadable methods that would some day render the CableCARD obsolete. — Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:50:46 PM
re: Consumer Groups to FCC: Redo the Set-Top Rules
NCTA president & CEO Kyle McSlarrow issued a statement in response to the consumer group filing, reiterating that the cable org agrees that "current rules have not facilitated a vibrant retail marketplace for video devices. We also agree that today's marketplace is nothing like the GÇ˙cable-centricGÇÖ world that existed when the statute was adopted."
Which is why NCTA says it supports a "broad inquiry" on ways to explore the development of video devices, including all-MVPD platforms.
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