TiVo may be biting the hand that's feeding it by whining to the FCC that cable discriminates against retail boxes and hinders product innovation

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

December 24, 2009

4 Min Read
TiVo Gives Cable Both Barrels

TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) has attacked one of its more promising subscriber growth partners, the cable industry, claiming that MSOs discriminate against third-party box providers by imposing licenses and conditions that limit product design and wrest control of the "look, feel, and content, of the graphical user interface."

Any deviations to those requirements "must be requested and often are refused," TiVo claims.

TiVo filed those comments this week in response to a request from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking for help on how it can help spark innovation in the video device market.

The FCC is seeking those comments as it pulls together a National Broadband Plan it will present to Congress on Feb. 17, 2010, and it's curious to know whether broadband-connected TVs and set-tops can help drive adoption of high-speed Internet services. (See FCC Boots Up National Broadband Plan , Whither the CableCARD?, and The Set-Top Files (Part I) .)

TiVo's comments come to light just as the DVR pioneer continues to make progress striking deals with MSOs -- deals it likely will need, to shore up its eroding subscriber base. Among recent examples, TiVo has domestic distribution deals in place with Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Cox Communications Inc. , RCN Corp. , and some smaller MSOs via its partnership with Evolution Broadband LLC . (See TiVo Culls It Some Cable and TiVo Covers Its Cable Bases .)

Although TiVo's getting some traction with MSOs, most of the company's complaints stem from barriers that, it says, prevent it from developing compelling retail products that can pipe in video from the Internet and access the programming offered by MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors) -- a category that includes MSOs, as well as satellite TV and telco TV operators -- without jumping through a series of unnecessary hoops.

TiVo's retail products can access cable's linear digital cable programming using CableCARDs, but a special device called the Tuning Adapter is required for customers to obtain channels in an MSO's switched tier. A TiVo box supporting the tru2way middleware will allow access to other cable services and applications, such as video-on-demand (VoD), but the company claims that such efforts are stymied by costly and strict license agreements and certification requirements. (See CableLabs Stamps SDV Tuning Adapters .)

And even if TiVo is successful in getting the tru2way stamp, other cable restrictions put the resulting product at a distinct disadvantage at retail, TiVo claims. Among the verboten are a choice of user interface when accessing interactive services, and the inclusion of "non-MVPD programming services," such as Internet-delivered content, in the user interface that displays the available cable programming.

TiVo's filing does not mention one concession the cable industry has made in respect to tru2way that sought to address this complaint, at least to a degree. In late 2007, TiVo revealed that CableLabs had adjusted the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), the middleware component of tru2way, so it would run in two modes: "TiVo Mode," which would preserve the TiVo interface and allow full access to all the DVR's functions, including access to Internet content; and "Cable Mode," which would supply the MSO's apps and native user interface. (See TiVo à la Mode .)

TiVo comments this week suggest that it's not satisfied with that concession, because it doesn't allow for a seamless blending of the two without requiring the consumer to toggle back and forth manually. Some of that may stem from the historic contention about who (the MSO or the box maker) controls the OCAP "monitor application," a component that polices and prioritizes the box's processing resources. That application monitors how the box's resources are being drawn on, in an effort to prevent the liklihood of crashes.

"Without more vigorous Commission oversight of MVPDs’ abuse ofposition, bringing a viable product to market that satisfies the technical and licensing requirements imposed by cable and non-cable MVPDs will be next to impossible," TiVo contends.

But TiVo's filing does point to what it views as a possible solution to all this -– an "open gateway" that would serve as a demarcation point between the operator's access network and the home network protocols, and allow consumers to switch providers without swapping out the devices that use the home network.

And TiVo isn't crazy about HDMI-CEC (High-Definition Multimedia Interface - Consumer Electronics Control), an interface the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) is suggesting could be used to allow communications and control between the TV and a retail "set-back" box that could apply to all MVPDs, not just cable. (See Cable's Got Ideas for a Universal Retail Box .)

TiVo said HDMI is simply a way to display video without compression, but it's limited because video transmitted over HDMI can't be stored or moved around the home on a network. Instead, TiVo wants the Commission to support an IP-based networking standard that could work in tandem with its gateway proposal.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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