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Cable Wants to Keep the Box Closed

The chief of the cable lobby prefers a "targeted approach" to telecom reform. Take that pesky July 2006 prohibition on integrated set-top boxes, for example. That could go.

The National Cable Telecommunications Association this week filed an ex parte comment with the FCC requesting the 2006 deadline be dashed. The deadline arises from the 1996 Telecom Act directing the FCC to make cable set-tops available as a retail item. The FCC thus directed the cable industry to separate the security and non-security functions of their set-tops, and to stop making integrated set-tops -- i.e., those with both functions -- by July, 2006. The logic was that if cable operators continued to make proprietary integrated set-tops, competing vendors wouldn't stand a chance.

CableCARDS represent the progeny of the legislation in the sense that they are separate security devices for television sets that have built-in non-security set-top functions. Unidirectional Digital Cable Ready Products, they are called, or "UDCPs."

The NCTA filing argued that CableCARDS, which became available last July, are doing just fine in the market, and don't require the prohibition of proprietary integrated set-tops.

"Within a few months, the number of ...CableCARD-enabled products has grown to over 140 devices from 11 manufacturers," the filing stated. "The number of CableCARDS deployed in the field working with UDCPs has increase from zero to approximately 10,000."

NCTA said separating security functions costs too much and impedes cable's ability to go all-digital.

"Cable operators will need to be able to deploy digital-to-analog converters to sustain the many legacy analog devices that remain in customers homes," the filing stated. "To add a CableCARD interface to every converter that needs to connect to every analog device in the home will represent a serious impediment to the discontinuance of analog transmission."

The Consumer Electronic Association, whose members have dropped beaucoup bucks on the UDCP introduction, responded with a filing of its own.

"Innovation and consumer choice hang in the balance," it stated. "The only tangible result of more than a decade of cable compatibility negotiations and regulation is that one-way televisions [UDCPs] are at a significant disadvantage when compared to cable operators' own leased set-top boxes.

"Cable has had years to prepare for the compliance date and has succeeded in delaying implementation every step of the way. There is simply no tangible case for any further delay."