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DSL/vectoring/G.fast

All About the FCC's AllVid

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's proposed gateways and adapters, temporarily named "AllVid," are at least two years away from reality. But the Commission already has lots of ideas on how these gadgets could bridge the gap between smart broadband-connected video devices and the managed networks of cable MSOs, telcos, and satellite-TV operators.

On Wednesday, the FCC opened a Notice of Inquiry on the concept of AllVid, an adapter viewed as a possible successor to the troublesome CableCARD. The 28-page NOI is a starting point (a formal rulemaking proposal is sure to follow), but the FCC has made it clear that it wants MVPDs to be prepared to offer AllVid equipment to customers by Dec. 31, 2012.

The FCC's hope is that AllVid could help unleash a competitive retail market for set-top boxes that tap multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) as well as Web-sourced video. (See FCC Inches Towards Net-Agnostic Gateways.) The NOI will invite comments (and there will be plenty!) about how this can be done, but the FCC already has its own ideas, outlined in the NOI.

The AllVid vision
It's starting off with two AllVid product concepts: a small, cheapo set-back adapter to serve as the go-between that could be leased by service providers, and a brainy retail-focused, gateway product that would conceivably open the door to innovation from the consumer electronics industry.

The whole-home gateway configuration should be capable of providing "at least six simultaneous video streams" for handling picture-in-picture in three different rooms, according to the FCC's NOI. The FCC expects to consider other "superior configurations," however. Still, there's already one analysis holding that AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s current streaming capabilities for the U-verse TV service would fall short of the FCC's initial AllVid gateway expectations.

AllVid would replace the CableCARD and handle tuning and security functions that are specific to the MVPD. As conceived, that would leave the "smart video device" to do the cooler stuff -- navigation, presentation of interactive program guides, and search. The FCC is also using the NOI to invite "any alternative proposals," so it appears that the agency wants to use this NOI as a gigantic bucket of Play Doh and leave it to others to figure out how to mold its overarching goals into something innovative and feasible.

No on tru2way
But it's quite clear that it doesn't think tru2way should be part of any mandated alternatives. "We are not convinced that the tru2way solution will assure the development of a commercial retail market as directed by Congress," the FCC said, noting a view that tru2way is "an unworkable solution for DBS and other non-cable providers."

Cable has appealed to the telcos to adopt tru2way, but those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. (See Telcos: Climb Aboard the Tru2way Train and Verizon: No Way on tru2way .)

The FCC doesn't like the licenses tied to tru2way, and it believes agreements tied to tru2way use and adoption limit a device's ability to feed in video from the Web and to use interfaces from outside parties. (CableLabs officials have countered by saying tru2way can adopt IP profiles, and companies such as Related Content Database Inc. (RCDb) have developed server systems that can bridge Web-sourced video to tru2way devices, so this fight isn't over.) (See Rogers Seeks Tru2way Alternative .)

Instead, the FCC is hoping AllVid leads to a "nationwide interoperability standard, much as Ethernet and the IEEE 802.11 standards have" for broadband data networks. It's already recommending that Ethernet be used as AllVid's physical layer, but does invite comment on other approaches, including those based on Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) .

"The AllVid concept would follow the broadband approach," the Commission said. "It would place the network-specific functions such as conditional access, provisioning, reception, and decoding of the signal in one small, inexpensive, operator-provided adapter."

It's also looking at DTCP-IP for encryption and authentication, is open to TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO)'s suggestion that Universal Plug and Play protocols be used for service discovery, and wonders if over-the-air digital tuners should be baked into AllVid products.

Other AllVid questions to be vetted include the role of downloadable security, and how third-party user interfaces can be made to access MVPD services.

Of course, nothing's built yet. But the FCC thinks the set-back, dongle-like adapter could be as small as a deck of cards, so this product might end up looking like the next-generation Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) has specified and that Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. showed off at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) Cable-Tec Expo in Denver last fall. (See Trident Pokes at Broadcom's DTA Chip Lead .)

Copying NCTA
Although the FCC NOI casts even more doubt on tru2way's role in retail, National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) comments this week applauded the effort. It was, after all, the NCTA that first proposed the notion of an "All-MPVD" adapter in a filing to the FCC on June 5, 2007.

Back then, the NCTA said the development of an operator-provided device would be "about the size of an iPod" and would connect retail devices that would support the OpenCable Platform (the middleware component of tru2way). However, the NCTA did explain that OpenCable wouldn't have to be a necessary component, since the All-MVPD device would apply to other TV industries. (See Cable's Got Ideas for a Universal Retail Box and Brenner Defends OpenCable .)

The FCC's inquiry does ask about how third-party interactive program guides and navigation systems can factor in. That's something the cable industry hasn't been particularly wild about, and it's been a source of consternation for consumer electronics companies, too. (See TiVo à la Mode and TiVo Gives Cable Both Barrels .)

And don't expect AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and satellite-TV operators, which have been immune from separable security so far, to be crazy about all this, either, since such a rule would change the way they operate and probably add what they view as unnecessary expenses. (See DirecTV Disses Cable's 'All-MVPD' Plans.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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