FCC: Retail Set-Top Is Possible, at Least

The dream of a retail set-top or gateway, one that works for cable, telco, and satellite TV, could be inching closer to reality.

Or, at least, closer to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Notice of Inquiry (NOI).

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) has been pushing the FCC to open an NOI for what's called an all-MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor) device. And comments today suggest the FCC is at least thinking about it and believes the right industry standards exist to make it doable.

"It would take Commission action to drive the effort, but [the] industry has many pieces in place to implement this proposal," FCC Media Bureau Chief William Lake said.

The FCC brought up the topic as part of today's progress update on the National Broadband Plan, which is due to Congress on Feb. 17. While drafting the Plan, the FCC has been seeking comments on how to "encourage innovation" in the video device market. (See FCC Outlines Broadband Plan 'Framework', FCC Explains Its Broadband Plan, FCC: Spectrum Shortage Will Be a 'Crisis', 100-Meg Price Tag: $350B, and FCC Boots Up National Broadband Plan .)

To that end, the cable industry has some ideas for an all-MVPD, but has had trouble getting its competition to buy into the concept. DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) says its customers prefer to lease their set-tops, and it claims that an all-MVPD would be expensive and would stymie product innovation. (See DirecTV Disses Cable's 'All-MVPD' Plans and Cable's Got Ideas for a Universal Retail Box .)

But the FCC wants to see a retail set-top market emerge, and CableCARD didn't have the mojo to accomplish that. (See Whither the CableCARD?)

"The CableCARD regime has not achieved its intended goals," Lake said, adding that it would behoove the Commission to "fix" the current approach by developing an option applicable to all video service providers, not just cable.

In order to work with the different types of broadband networks, such a gateway would include an open-standard interface for downloading functions specific to the network operator, such as conditional access or video reception and tuning, Lake said.

The NCTA is pitching HDMI-CEC (High-Definition Multimedia Interface – Consumer Electronics Control) as one potential candidate for this interface. But the NCTA certainly won't be the only one offering possible answers, should the FCC push forward and open a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on the subject.

BBT's USB option
Beyond Broadband Technology LLC (BBT) , a consortium backed by three small MSOs, thinks it can fit the bill with the BBTSolution, a downloadable security platform that supports multiple conditional access and encryption systems. BBT described in a recent FCC filing how that platform, used today in set-top boxes, could be applied to a USB-connected dongle.

The security system of choice would be loaded onto a STMicroelectronics NV (NYSE: STM) chip embedded in a set-top box. BBT has also picked a partner (yet undisclosed) for a USB device that would house the ST chip and be used with PCs and other devices that can display IP video -- an approach that might suit some operator-managed "TV Everywhere" efforts.

The chip could also be baked into a CableCARD. (See BBT Preps Its Own CableCARD .)

Steve Effros, BBT's director of strategic development and communications, notes that about 10,000 security chips have already been pressed as BBT gets ready to support commercial cable deployments next year with box and headend partner R.L. Drake LLC . "The chip is made; it's here," he says. (See Drake Downloads Some Deals .)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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