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Cable Circles the DTA Wagons

A batch of cable vendors, associations, and even a major programmer flooded the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) docket last week with filings opposing a petition that aims to blow up a blanket, three-year set-top waiver recently awarded to Evolution Broadband LLC . (See FCC Believes in Evolution-ary DTAs.)

That opposition includes U.S. cable's top two pressure groups (the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) , and the American Cable Association (ACA) ), Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS), and a joint filing from rival set-top suppliers Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Pace Micro Technology , Thomson S.A. (NYSE: TMS; Euronext Paris: 18453), and Nagravision SA .

The waiver gives Evolution three years to offer a digital terminal adapter (DTA) with embedded security (the Conax AS conditional access system, to be precise). Integrated security isn't allowed under the FCC's July 2007 mandate. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven'.)

DTAs are simple one-way boxes with integrated security capabilities that allow digital video signals to be viewable on older analog TV sets. At less than $50 per unit, DTAs are believed to cost hundreds of dollars less than an entry-level set-top that uses CableCARD security.

So, the petition group (Public Knowledge, Free Press, Media Access Project, New America Foundation, Open Technology Institute, and U.S. PIRG) argues that the waiver will undermine adoption of CableCARD-capable set-tops and the development of an open retail market for interactive digital cable set-tops and cable-ready TVs. (See DTA Opposition Mounts .)

Here comes the support
But several groups oppose the petition (meaning, they support Evolution's waiver). Here's the score:

  • In a July 9 FCC filing, the NCTA says the FCC has long recognized that waivers for "low-cost, limited-capability set-top boxes will serve the public interest" without harming a retail market for other devices.

    In the DTA waiver case, the NCTA says MSOs will still rely on removable CableCARD modules for more advanced HD-, and DVR-capable boxes. As of last month, the top 10 incumbent U.S. cable MSOs had already deployed more than 14 million boxes with CableCARDs.

  • The ACA claims that operators in small and rural markets can't afford all-digital transitions that only rely on more expensive CableCARD-based digital boxes.

  • Evolution pushes that argument further, claiming that its three-year waiver promotes the CableCARD, because MSOs "remain obligated" to use the security modules in most other set-tops as well as tru2way boxes and TVs tagged for retail distribution.

    "Nothing in the Evolution Order changes that," the vendor claimed, noting that it has developed a CableCARD of its own based on Conax's conditional access system but is still awaiting approval from CableLabs . (See First Look: Evolution's CableCARD .)

  • The vendors that filed a joint opposition -- Moto, Cisco, Pace, Thomson, and Nagravision -- said the FCC was right in establishing a streamlined waiver process for "comparable" one-way devices and, therefore, spawning a competitive market for the DTAs themselves.

    They also dismissed concerns from the petitioning group that DTAs could somehow be transformed into more advanced devices by downloading new features and capabilities.

    "Even if it were technically feasible to do so (which it is not), adding new hardware with advanced capabilities at the time of installation would violate the terms of the waiver grant and negate the cost savings associated with deploying these low-cost devices," they said.

  • And Disney became the first programmer to publicly endorse a waiver for DTAs, saying security protections are "critical" to prevent unauthorized reception or even piracy, especially as more programming goes digital. Disney also appeared to suggest it doesn't want MSOs to deliver its programming to DTAs without encryption.

    Disney also argues that reversing the Evolution order "would, paradoxically, work to deprive consumers of access to digital services by precluding multichannel video programming distributors… from providing one of the simplest and least costly ways to participate in the digital transition."

Meanwhile, several MSOs, most notably Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), are using DTAs to fuel analog reclamation projects, freeing up spectrum for things like high-definition channels and Docsis 3.0 services. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan and Comporium Tests Positive for DTAs.)

Motorola, Cisco, Pace, and Thomson are all supplying DTAs to Comcast, and they're all seeking FCC waivers like Evolution's. Comcast so far is deploying those DTAs without security, to not cross up the July 20007 ban. However, an update to the firmware in those DTAs could activate a content security scheme called "privacy mode." (See Cisco, Moto Go for DTA Waivers , DTA Waiver Mania, and Comcast's DTAs: Security Optional .)

It's unlikely that Comcast (or any other MSO) would attempt to turn on that security until one or all of its DTA suppliers were successful in obtaining an FCC waiver.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

LeonardGrace 12/5/2012 | 4:00:43 PM
re: Cable Circles the DTA Wagons

The blanket "three-year set-top waiver" rule approved by the FCC to allow vendor Evolution Broadband LLC to develop and offer low cost-one-way set top boxes, DTA's, to the public is being challenged by (Public Knowledge, Free Press, Media Access Project, New America Foundation, Open Technology Institute, and U.S. PIRG), which argue that, "the waiver will undermine adoption of CableCARD-capable set-tops and the development of an open retail market for interactive digital cable set-tops and cable-ready TVs."

While this is another attempt to undermine the evolution of digital signals throughout the industry; it is misguided in the attempt to deny a real solution for the Cable Industry in converting analog signals to digital format, thereby opening up more bandwidth for additional programming. It would also, in essence, deprive consumers of more digital programming. The DTA's are a low cost alternative, under $50, set top box with encryption capabilities for consumers to receive digital signals on older analog TVs.

I agree with the NCTA, ACA, vendors, and programmers in filing a petition to stop any changes in the existing set-top waiver rule. It does not interfere with the current Cable-Card initiative currently underway giving consumers a standard avenue for digital viewing, especially with over $14m already deployed.

Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 4:00:42 PM
re: Cable Circles the DTA Wagons

And all eyes will be on the FCC to see if they retain that original Evolution waiver and/or approve the other requests already in from Moto, Cisco, Pace, and Thomson...if the FCC takes the side of Public Knowledge, Free Press, et al, and  goes back and rescinds the original waiver, that could throw a huge monkey wrench into some of the DTA deployments already underway at Comcast and at other operators.  Sure, they can continue to pipe in some of those channels in the expanded basic tier "in the clear" for now through those DTAs, but, looking at Disney's filing, it would appear that programmers might squawk about that situation at some point.  There is ALOT at stake here.

LeonardGrace 12/5/2012 | 4:00:42 PM
re: Cable Circles the DTA Wagons

Jeff, I agree with your comments, and there is alot at stake here for the Cable Industry. Disney is trying to protect it's feed. It will be interesting to see how this finally plays out.


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