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HD-DTA Battle Heats Up

Opposing sides are jockeying for position at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week as the agency prepares to formally propose new CableCARD rules that may allow cable operators to buy and deploy a new breed of relatively inexpensive hi-def Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) boxes with integrated security.

The FCC has already granted waivers to several standard-definition DTAs, but now cable wants to use HD versions that, in volume, can be had for less than $50 per unit -- far less than entry-level HD boxes that use separable, CableCARD-based security.

The FCC -- which will present a freshened up Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the CableCARD and open a Notice of Inquiry regarding network-agnostic "gateway" devices on April 21 -- has initially thought about offering an HD-DTA exemption to a relatively small number of bandwidth-strapped cable systems with 552MHz or less of activated capacity. (See FCC Floats 'Simple' Gateway, CableCARD Rules and FCC Chews on HD-DTA Exemption .)

Since then, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) , Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), and Charter Communications Inc. , among others, have urged the agency to consider extending that exemption to include all cable systems. (See NCTA, Comcast Push for Blanket Exemption .)

The FCC has not commented on any of these possible exemptions officially, but Communications Daily reported Tuesday that the Commission is now expected to change its draft rules to include a proposal that the HD-DTA exemption indeed apply to a wider range of cable systems.

Public Knowledge weighed in at the FCC on Tuesday to say it's against any further exemptions that would sidestep the FCC's 2007 ban on integrated security boxes, including any new HD-capable models.

"Creating exemptions to set-top box rules that would allow operators to offer high-functioning boxes would undermine any efforts to create a viable consumer market for set-top boxes," the consumer advocacy group noted.

The cable industry, led initially by the individual HD-DTA-related waiver efforts of Cable One Inc. , has argued that HD services should no longer be considered "advanced" because they now represent competitive table stakes. (See Cable ONE Looks to Pump Up HD-DTA Volumes and HD No Longer an 'Advanced' Service?)

The NCTA, in comments filed at the Commission today, also asserted that it's "absurd" for Public Knowledge to even suggest that DTAs are "high-functioning" devices, since they are capable only of receiving one-way programming services (so they aren't capable of receiving interactive cable service such as video-on-demand). "Moreover, the only Unidirectional Digital Cable Ready Products available at retail today -- those manufactured by TiVo and Moxi -- have far more advanced functionality in order to differentiate themselves," the Association added.

Another jab at the DTA
Public Knowledge also asked the FCC to resolve a pending petition to reconsider the original SD-DTA waiver granted to Evolution Digital LLC last June, before the Commission takes any further action. Evolution, by the way, is trying to obtain a similar three-year waiver on a hi-def-capable DTA model. (See FCC Believes in Evolution-ary DTAs and ACA Wants Action on Evolution's HD Box Waiver .)

Public Knowledge claims that the existing waiver process has harmed companies that have invested in set-tops that comply with the FCC's separable security rules. The only example it's presented so far is the case of IPCO LLC, a company that claims FCC DTA waivers have all but destroyed its ability to sell boxes, secure funding, and retain key executives. (See Box Maker Blames FCC for Everything and IPCO Update.)

The NCTA also countered that claim, holding that IPCO's boxes do not comply with CableCARD requirements. IPCO recently showed its "CableCARD-complaint" boxes to the FCC, and images of the devices and their related specifications documentation indicate no presence of a CableCARD slot.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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