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The Set-Top Mess

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable Opinion
Jeff Baumgartner

Guess what? The parties that have skin in the future of the set-top game are still light-years apart when it comes to agreeing on... well, just about anything.

At least that's the conclusion I've come to after sifting through a batch of mind-numbing reply comments submitted this week in response to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's inquiry on how it can help bring more innovation to the video device market and spur broadband adoption. The FCC is diving into this as part of the National Broadband Plan it's expected to present to Congress on March 17. (See Whither the CableCARD? and FCC Delays National Broadband Plan.)

This week's flurry of responses arrived weeks after the initial boatload of comments, which were all over the map.

Groups like Public Knowledge and Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) , proposed do-it-all gateway platforms. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) , meanwhile, advocated for a thinner, "set-back" box approach for cable, telcos, and satellite-TV players alike. DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) doesn't want anything to do with any of those proposals. And TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) said cable's licensing schemes and other requirements for bringing third-party set-tops to the fold suck ostrich eggs.

That's the simplistic version, but there are more details than you might care to see in the following: The Set-Top Files (Part I) , The Set-Top Files (Part II) , TiVo Gives Cable Both Barrels , DirecTV Disses Cable's 'All-MVPD' Plans, and Cable's Got Ideas for a Universal Retail Box .)

In the most recent response phase, there were (thankfully) fewer documents filed, but the arguments presented were as familiar as yesterday's news. Here's a snapshot of some of them.

NCTA: Gateway proposals are full of flaws
Cable's main pressure group said a gateway device is one of many possible approaches the FCC should explore in a more formal Notice of Inquiry (NOI), but argued that the proposals for a "one-size-fits all" super-gateway aren't good enough for an immediate rulemaking because they're peppered with "flaws and inadequacies."

What is it about those proposals that stinks up the joint? According to the NCTA, they omit protocols for the Emergency Alert System, closed captioning, parental controls, and Quality of Service (QoS). And they don't get into the tricky issue of content and network security.

"Get it wrong, and the flow of programming available to all cable consumers is put at risk," the NCTA warns.

It also said the notion of an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) -standardized gateway would "entail crippling delays," claiming that the steps of developing and consummating those standards would take years and would require multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to toss everything out and "reinvent" their services.

DirecTV: Thin isn't in
DirecTV again took aim at cable's "all-MVPD" set-back idea, claiming a "thin gateway approach" could hinder the company from introducing new service enhancements and could boost subscriber costs.

Motorola: Nothing to see here
Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) took umbrage at the mere notion that the set-top market suffers from a lack of innovation.

Moto completed that Jedi mind trick by suggesting that the addition of features like DVRs, Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) , and the "Motorola Mover" (a set-top accessory that allows consumers to send recorded subscription video to mobile devices) are some prime examples of box innovation.

Still, Moto, which just announced that it has shipped more than 100 million set-tops, did allow that IP represents the future of video distribution.

"We strongly support FCC policies that encourage deployment of IP networks and re-evaluate costly regulations, like the CableCARD, that potentially stand in the way of such pro-consumer innovation."

Considering the wide range of opinions, it's hard not to agree with the NCTA's opinion that the FCC, if it truly insists on pursuing some sort of set-top-related rulemaking, should start with a formal NOI rather than trying to attach it to the already delayed National Broadband Plan like a freakishly unnecessary appendage.

There's just too much ground to cover, and the various sides are too far apart to try to shoehorn a solution that might just end up making the "problem" much worse.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:43:40 PM
re: The Set-Top Mess

both are worthy objectives, and both stand about the same chance of success.

Nice summary of the various dogs in this fight.

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