The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched two related proceedings on set-top box issues at its April 21, 2010, open meeting.

One is a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) posing extensive long-term questions about the possibility of requiring all multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to provide adaptors by Dec. 31, 2012, that translate their programming into standard video feeds that may be consumed by a variety of retail devices.

The other is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to address perceived short-term CableCARD issues. This NPRM could affect the availability of high-definition (HD) digital terminal adaptors (DTAs), the use of switched digital tuning adaptors used to expand the tuning range of “one-way” retail devices, digital outputs from HD set-top boxes, the installation process and pricing for CableCARDs, and the certification of “one-way” retail devices.

Background

Congress adopted Section 629 of the Communications Act in 1996 with an instruction to the FCC to “adopt regulations to assure the commercial availability” of navigation devices (such as set-top boxes) from manufacturers and retailers not affiliated with any cable or satellite television service provider. The provision arose as retail consumer electronics manufacturers sought to increase their presence in the cable television set-top box arena, a market traditionally supplied by Cisco (Scientific-Atlanta) and Motorola.

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan included two recommendations derived from this provision. First, it recommended that the FCC launch a proceeding seeking to require all MVPDs to install (undefined) “gateway” devices or functional equivalents to feed MVPD programming into home networks and retail devices. Second, it recommended that the FCC adopt short-term “fixes” to CableCARD rules by the fall of 2010, addressing CableCARD prices and installation processes and requiring cable operators to redesign switched digital technology (SDV). Detailed summaries of the National Broadband Plan and of previous set-top box issues are provided here.

“AllVid” gateway Notice of Inquiry

As expected, the FCC launched an NOI focused on the “gateway” approach to MVPD content delivery. The Commission’s concept is to enable “smart [retail] video devices that attach to any MVPD service anywhere in the United States” as “a successor technology to CableCARD.” The NOI suggests that new rules should apply to all MVPDs. This marks a significant change from the FCC’s prior cable-centric approach. The initial CableCARD rules effectively exempted direct broadcast satellite (DBS), and the FCC hasn’t enforced its rules against DBS operators after they no longer met the terms for the exemption. Nor has it enforced its rules against AT&T and most other telephone companies that have ignored them. This means that “cable-ready” CableCARD retail devices still need a set-top box to access DBS and the video systems of AT&T and other telephone companies, which now account for 40 percent of the marketplace.

Accordingly, the NOI describes a theoretical “AllVid” (all-video) gateway adaptor device that all MVPDs could be required to offer by Dec. 31, 2012. The NOI describes two types of adaptors. One adaptor, described as a “set-back” device, would be provided by each MVPD to translate its own network delivery technologies into a standardized video output. That output could be received by an “AllVid” retail device that could receive video from any MVPD and combine that feed with other video sources, such as video delivered over the Internet. A second kind of adaptor would provide the same translation function to a home router, which could in turn feed networked retail devices.

The adaptors envisioned would be tailored to each MVPD, but the output envisioned is standardized. The expectation reflected in the NOI is that retail devices can present MVPD programming, along with other video sources, in a simple, integrated user interface defined by the retail device manufacturer, which could rearrange and present video sources in differentiated ways. The image offered by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was of a shopping mall which includes multiple retail stores.

The NOI contains a laundry list of desirable features for such devices: small and cheap, with inexpensive intellectual property, energy efficient, and ready to be adopted by the end of 2012, which is an ambitious target. One of the key deficiencies in earlier conceptions of “gateway” devices was a failure to grapple with the extensive issues surrounding the technology, intellectual property, economics, consumer demand, content protection, user interfaces, guides and business models in use for the delivery of MVPD video services. The NOI seeks comments on all of these issues.

The NOI also seeks comments on new standards that the FCC expects would be needed for the physical connection, communications protocols, content protection, encryption and authentication, service discovery, content ordering and billing, emergency alerts, parental controls, and closed captioning. Comment is also sought on how to resolve resource conflicts in home networks when multiple devices seek simultaneous use of the network. Although tru2way eliminates the need for discrete protocols through the use of common middleware, the NOI states that the FCC is “not convinced that the tru2way solution will assure the development of a commercial retail market.”

The FCC envisions an AllVid adapter with the limited functionality necessary to support downstream devices connected to the home network. Significantly, the FCC also asks the “common reliance” question: whether it should require all new cable leased devices to connect through an adaptor.

The Commission’s stated purposes for this inquiry include enabling consumers to access video content from a wide variety of sources (including cable and the Internet) in a single user interface, and to use the same retail devices when switching from one MVPD to another. The NOI also invites alternative proposals to a gateway mandate (including market-driven approaches) that can achieve the Commission’s objectives within the same timeframe.

CableCARD “fix” NPRM

The FCC launched an NPRM to consider some rule changes around CableCARDs. In contrast to the NOI, as a proposed rulemaking, the FCC would be positioned to adopt enforceable rules more quickly and without further notice once the comments are received. The Commission paints these rule changes as “short term” issues that it believes can and should be addressed by the fall of 2010 before its longer-term gateway regime emerges.

HD DTA. The NPRM asks whether cable operators should be permitted to employ low-cost one-way DTAs with HD outputs to assist in going all-digital. This would expand relief granted within the past year that allows cable operators to deploy one-way standard-definition DTAs. These devices could not include digital video recorder (DVR) capabilities. The NPRM also asks if this relief should be limited to small-capacity systems (those with less than 552MHz of activated channel capacity).

SDV and tuning adaptors. The NPRM asks how well the tuning adaptor is working to translate SDV linear channels into channels receivable by “one-way” retail unidirectional digital cable products (UDCPs), which were manufactured without the interactive capabilities needed to receive SDV channels. It asks whether any additional Commission action is necessary and seeks comment on the “cost and feasibility” of TiVo’s alternative proposal to require cable operators to allow retail CableCARD devices to receive out-of-band communications from the cable headend and transmit out-of-band communications to the headend over Internet protocol (IP), rather than the tuning adaptor that was invented specifically for the purpose.

1394 and other outputs. In 2003, the FCC required all HD set-top boxes provided by cable operators to include a functional IEEE 1394 output, but 1394 failed in the market. The FCC now proposes that cable operators may replace the 1394 output with other digital ports (e.g., USB 3.0, 802.11x or Ethernet), as a video output on HD set-top boxes. The outputs would be required to deliver video in “any” industry standard format. It further proposes that the rule more clearly define what makes an output “functional.” The FCC also tentatively concludes that it should require cable operators to enable bidirectional communication over these interfaces, at least to receive remote-control commands from connected devices.

Installation. The NPRM recites some concerns about the process for installing CableCARDs, and proposes to “streamline” installation by requiring that that all cable operators offer self-installation of CableCARDs if they allow self-installation of leased set-tops, stock multistream CableCARDs (“M-Cards”), and have installers bring at least the number of cards requested by the customer to the customer’s home.

Pricing. The NPRM seeks greater “transparency” in CableCARD pricing and proposes that if a cable operator charges a separate monthly fee for use of a CableCARD in a retail device owned by the customer (such as a TiVo), the operator must separately list the fee for the CableCARD included in a leased set-top box in each monthly invoice. The FCC seeks comment on its legal authority to impose this requirement and on how cable operators should determine charges for a CableCARD.

Certification. The NPRM recites some concerns over the process for device certification, and proposes that CableLabs shall not deny certification for a device that meets the criteria in the FCC rules for UDCPs.

The FCC released the NOI and NPRM on April 21, but the clock for comments will not begin until these items are published in the Federal Register. Comments on the NPRM will be due 30 days after such publication, and comments on the NOI will be due 60 days from the publication.