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FCC Chair Neutral in Two-Way Fight

LAS VEGAS -- CES -- If Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Kevin Martin is leaning one way or the other in the two-way "Plug & Play" battle brewing between the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the cable industry, he certainly didn't reveal much about it here Tuesday.

Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Martin was asked to share his thoughts on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the hairy subject of creating a standard way to implement interactive services on digital televisions without the need for a separate set-top. (See Two-Way Battle Reaches FCC.)

"Ultimately, trying to find a way to make sure the consumer electronics companies are able to [manufacture] televisions and build equipment that can attach to the network to match the cable networks and display not only one-way content but two-way content without having to have a cable set-top box is critical," Martin said [ed. note: all in one breath?] Tuesday during a panel session moderated by CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro.

Consumers, Martin suggested, want to be able to "walk into a store, buy a TV, take it home, and plug it in, and not have to get a set-top box."

He later donned his engineering hat. "Now there are a variety of ways from a technical standpoint that this issue can end up being addressed," Martin added, being careful not to throw that hat in with either side of the argument -- cable's or the CEA's

In late 2002, U.S. cable and the CEA agreed to a one-way Plug & Play accord based largely on the removable CableCARD and the CableCARD interface. But those digital cable-ready (DCR) sets, practically obsolete as they reached retail availability, haven't drummed up much consumer interest because they can't deliver interactive apps such as video-on-demand (VOD) without a set-top box, all but defeating the purpose of the exercise. (See CableCARD Update II .)

To address the two-way problem, cable has proposed the OpenCable Platform, officially re-branded as tru2way at this week's cluttered gadget-fest. (See Cable's 'tru2way' Play .)

The CEA wants a simpler approach called DCR Plus, which, the cable industry argues, is limited in scope and would require an expensive engineering feat just to get systems prepped for it. As an added alternative, cable is also proposing a system that could apply to all MVPDs (multi-channel video programming distributors) that would encompass cable, as well as video services delivered through telcos and satellite operators. (See Brenner Defends OpenCable .)

While Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and some big-name consumer electronics partners are talking up tru2way at this week's show, Shapiro did not miss his opportunity to snipe about it.

"At this point there's no deliverable," he said, this despite the fact that LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) and Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) are showing off tru2way-based TVs on the cavernous show floor. Shapiro also wondered why CE companies should be "forced to buy all sorts of unnecessary stuff or, frankly... forced to sign agreements which give away their livelihood."

In order to participate in tru2way and build interactive devices based on the platform, CE firms must sign the CableLabs CableCARD Host Interface Licensing Agreement (CHILA).

On that point, Martin appeared to be in Shapiro's camp, agreeing that CE firms should not be subject to "onerous terms" that could prohibit them from making devices that consumers want.

But Martin also acknowledged there's already some consensus being built through cable-CE two-way agreements, and that will factor into what the FCC's role should be in the final outcome.

So, at this point, your guess is as good as anybody's.

Martin later noted that it's possible to make improvements to the clunky CableCARD approach. The FCC has already held that a downloadable conditional access system (DCAS) would satisfy the ban on integrated set-top security, which went into effect last July. (See Countdown to 'Seven-Oh-Seven'.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News; and Phil Harvey, Editor in Chief, Light Reading
materialgirl 12/5/2012 | 3:50:12 PM
re: FCC Chair Neutral in Two-Way Fight While legacy service providers fight over how to maintain their closed systems, open systems continue to grow around them. Soon, no one will care and these vendors will just fall hopelessly behind as they protect their dwindling revenue base. They can ill afford this fight.
Jeff Baumgartner 12/5/2012 | 3:50:04 PM
re: FCC Chair Neutral in Two-Way Fight We'll also have to see how "open" they really become. Being "open" but with a walled garden approach isn't going to resonate
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