On Oct. 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted an Order revising its CableCARD rules to address perceived “short-term” CableCARD issues. All cable operators need to review the new rules carefully, as every operator will need to implement changes to their provisioning systems.

As we have previously advised, the FCC initiated this proceeding to “fix” perceived “short-term” issues with CableCARDs used in retail set-top boxes such as TiVos, while the FCC continues to consider longer-term reform aimed at creating retail devices that would work with all multichannel video providers.

The Order provides all cable operators with the opportunity to deploy integrated one-way high-definition digital terminal adapters (which can assist in converting cable systems to digital). It also provides operators with alternatives to the existing requirement to include an IEEE 1394 connector in every HD set-top device.

In addition, the Order imposes obligations to support retail CableCARD devices in new ways, including allowing self-installation of CableCARDs, and providing discounts from bundled package prices when customers use their own retail device rather than a leased set-top included in the package.

HD DTAs

The Order grants all cable operators a permanent exemption from the integration ban for one-way standard-definition and high-definition Digital Terminal Adapters (DTAs) that do not include recording capability. Previously, the Commission had exempted only certain models of standard-definition DTAs for a three-year period. The National Broadband Plan had initially proposed to limit HD DTA relief to cable systems with less than 552MHz of activated channel capacity, but the Order expands the relief to all systems.

Installation

The Order requires all cable operators to permit requesting customers to self-install CableCARDs in retail devices. This rule will become effective Aug. 1, 2011, for all operators who permit customers to install leased set-top boxes or cable modems, or Nov. 1, 2011, for those that do not. This rule would apply only to the use of CableCARDs in retail devices whose manufacturer or vendor provides appropriate instructions for self-installation of a CableCARD and a manned toll-free telephone number to answer consumer questions regarding CableCARD installation (which TiVo and Moxi, the current primary retail device manufacturers, do today). Cable operators will be expected to provide customers with working CableCARDs, and should test the cards before providing them to customers for self-installation.

In addition, effective Aug. 1, 2011, cable operators must provide Multistream-Cards unless the customer requests a Single-stream Card. Professional installation is still permitted. When performing professional CableCARD installations, the technician must bring at least the number of CableCARDs that has been requested by the customer.

SDV and tuning adapters

The retail CableCARD devices in use today are designed to be one-way, so they are not able to send upstream signals requesting linear channels on a two-way switched digital video (SDV) system. At the request of TiVo, the cable industry voluntarily developed and deployed tuning adapters (TAs) that enable retail devices to access SDV channels.

However, TiVo later proposed, and the National Broadband Plan endorsed, a requirement that cable operators instead develop an Internet based “IP backchannel” that one-way retail CableCARD devices could use to access SDV without a tuning adapter. The Commission decided instead only to mandate support for one-way retail device access to SDV channels without specifying a specific technology.

Therefore, cable operators may choose to use TAs, an IP backchannel, or other methods to provide satisfactory access to all linear channels. If using TAs, the Order requires them to support four simultaneous streams of programming or the number of streams accommodated by the operator’s most sophisticated set-top box connected to a single display device, whichever is greater, effective Aug. 1, 2011. (The Order distinguishes servers and gateways from set-top boxes.)

Finally, the Order prohibits cable operators from providing “misleading information regarding the ability of navigation devices to access switched digital channels” (i.e., stating that a channel is unavailable on CableCARD devices without further explanation that the channel could be accessed with a TA).

1394 and other outputs

Many manufacturers have long asked the FCC to eliminate its requirement that all HD set-top boxes include the little-used IEEE 1394 output, but so far had obtained only temporary waivers. Once the Order goes into effect, the 1394 output is no longer required, although cable operators will remain required to provide an HD set-top that includes a 1394 interface to customers on request.

On July 1, 2011, two-way HD set-top boxes must include an interface capable of delivering recordable high-definition video and closed captioning data in an industry standard format. The Order names as examples several IP-based interfaces such as Ethernet, Wi-Fi, USB, and MoCA, but does not limit operators to IP.

Effective Dec. 1, 2012, two-way HD set-top boxes will also have to comply with an open industry standard that provides for service discovery, video transport, and remote control command pass-through for home networking.

The FCC exempted one-way, nonrecording HD DTAs from the specific interface output requirements.

CableCARD pricing

The Commission decided not to adopt the National Broadband Plan’s proposal to require the inclusion of a separate CableCARD rate in the monthly invoice of customers whose leased set-top boxes include CableCARDs. Cable operators will instead be required to conspicuously disclose any assessed fee for CableCARDs in leased set-top boxes in rate cards provided to all customers at installation and annually thereafter, and on websites or billing inserts, and this fee must be the same for all CableCARDs deployed in the system, whether for retail devices or within leased devices. The Order also prohibits the imposition of any service fee on a subscriber for support of a retail device that is not assessed on subscriber use of an operator-provided device.

Bring-your-own-box discounts on bundles

If a cable operator offers a bundled package that includes a set-top box lease in the price, it must offer a discount to a customer who uses a retail device instead of the operator’s set-top box. The discount must be “reasonably allocable” to the lease of the operator’s set-top box, and these amounts must be conspicuously disclosed on the operator’s website or billing inserts. As with CableCARD fees, the portion of bundled prices attributable to leased set-tops boxes and CableCARDs must be conspicuously disclosed in the annual rate cards and on websites or billing inserts.

In the event of a complaint, the Commission will evaluate reasonableness based on one or more of the following factors: (i) an allocation determination approved by a local, state, or federal government entity; (ii) the monthly lease fee as stated on the cable system rate card; and (iii) the actual cost of the navigation device amortized over a period of no more than 60 months.

Complaints

The FCC will create a new page on its website for the submission of CableCARD complaints by customers. Cable operators should continue to consider means of improving customer experiences with CableCARDs.

Device certification

The Order adopts a new rule that CableLabs shall not deny certification for a one-way CableCARD device that meets the criteria in the FCC rules for such devices. This rule should not pose any issue since CableLabs acts in accordance with this requirement already, and the Order notes that “we believe that these rule changes do little more than codify the certification process as it exists today.” The Order carries forward existing procedures under which a manufacturer may bring a specific complaint regarding CableLabs licensing to the FCC.

Miscellaneous

The FCC also granted some long-pending requests to correct problems with the current rules. The encoding rules were clarified to allow the protection of content of video on demand (VOD) servers even if the content was originally broadcast over-the-air. They were also modified to make clear that FCC rules for moving content around secure home domains do not override requirements that may be part of affiliation agreements between operators and content providers. The Commission eliminated the requirement that the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) report on the status of two-way negotiations, but retained the obligation of the six largest cable operators to report quarterly on CableCARD deployment.

Summary of effective dates

Click here to see a calendar summarizes the effective dates of the new rules, in chronological order.