Cable Tech

The New CableCARD Rules

9:55 AM -- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's shot at reforming the CableCARD rules before the broader "AllVid" inquiry gets underway covers much more than an exemption of HD-DTAs and a dismissal of TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO)'s IP backchannel idea for switched digital video (SDV). (See FCC Opens the Way for More HD-DTAs, FCC Shoots Down TiVo's SDV Proposal, and FCC Approves CableCARD Fixes .)

The actual order goes on for 59 pages, but here's a snapshot of some of its other, more salient points:

CableCARD pricing and billing
Here, the FCC is requiring that cable operators "prominently" list the fee for their CableCARDs as a line item on their Websites and annual rate cards separate from their host devices (set-tops), and provide such information orally or in writing at the sub's request. These lease fees must also be uniform across a cable system regardless of whether the module's used in a leased box or one purchased at retail.

CableCARD installations
In this instance, the FCC concluded that the development of a retail market for navigation devices is to require cable MSOs to allow customers to self-install CableCARDs. For those that don't have self-installation support in place, they get 12 months to phase in this requirement. As pro installs go, the rule requires techs to show up "with at least the number of CableCARDs requested by the customer," which seems like common sense, rather than a rule that's in need of codification.

Also, at the start, the FCC is not requiring retail installs of CableCARDs, but is urging operators and retailers to reach private agreements that would result in a "consumer-friendly retail option." And cable ops must provide multi-stream CableCARDs by default unless a customer expressly requests a single-stream CableCARD, a situation that just seems weird, but okay.

CableCARD device certification
The problem addressed here involves complaints that the certification process for the CableCARD modules themselves is too lengthy and costly, with some holding that self-certification is the way to go. The FCC declined the self-certification proposal, deferring to CableLabs 's policies because it found that CableLabs is still best suited to handle the task, since CableCARD modules "are an important part of protecting signal theft and protecting cable networks."

All the FCC is really doing here is prohibiting CableLabs, or some other qualified testing facility, from refusing to certify CableCARD products for any reason other than a failure to comply with the conformance checklists. So, bottom line, there's not much progress to speak of here, since this is simply a codification of the existing certification process.

Interface requirements
The FCC killed off a requirement that all MSO-supplied two-way HD boxes include the relatively pricey IEEE "FireWire" interface for home networking, which has hardly been used. (See FCC Douses 'Firewire' .)

Instead, the FCC now requires the inclusion of an IP-based interface, with the caveat that it support the delivery of video "in a recordable format" (e.g. MPEG-2, MPEG-4) and pass through the closed-captioning data in a standard format. The FCC, however, is not mandating the physical transport method, so Ethernet, WiFi, Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) , or IP over IEEE 1394, should be perfectly suitable.

More on the IP backchannel
The FCC declined to mandate TiVo's IP backchannel proposal on SDV, but is mandating MSOs to ensure that customers who use one-way CableCARD devices "have satisfactory access to all linear channels" without codifying a specific method. So, tuning adapters will likely continue to rule the day, but the option is open for operators to pursue an IP backchannel to set-up and break down the SDV sessions.

However, the FCC did acknowledge that the tuning adapter is less than perfect, recognizing consumer complaints about the contraptions. So it will be monitoring this one. If problems persist, or if they get worse, the FCC reserved the right to revisit the decision.

But the new rules do prohibit operators from providing misleading info regarding a retail device's ability to tune switched channels. So be careful out there.

CableCARD reporting
Finally, the FCC has removed a requirement that cable and the CE industry file periodic updates on their two-way negotiations, now that the tru2way memorandum of understanding is in place. All that really means is that we'll be spared from reading filings that say, "Nothing new to report. Move along!" (See Revealed: The Tru2way MOU and No Penalties for Missing Tru2way Date.)

But the top MSOs are still required to file quarterly updates on their CableCARD deployments, so the FCC can track how many modules are being used in leased boxes versus retail devices, as well as costs and other elements tied to those deployments. (See CableCARD Update.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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