FCC denies Comcast request to maintain status quo on set-top boxes

The FCC’s Media Bureau has denied a request by Comcast to continue to require its subscribers to use the company’s proprietary set-top boxes.

Commission officials refused to waive a requirement for Comcast to market set-top boxes that are compatible with TV services offered by other cable operators instead of the current practice of selling its own cable box with subscriptions.

Previously, the FCC had ruled that by July 1, 2007, cable operators and consumer electronics companies must use compatible technology when building set-top boxes. When a user subscribes to a particular service, they then receive an external “smart card” that’s inserted into the box to decrypt the cable operator’s signals.

Comcast said it would appeal the decision, arguing that a quicker move to the FCC-mandated technology would be costly and the resulting price increase would hurt millions of its subscribers. The cable operator wanted to continue marketing entry-level set-top boxes that do not have CableCARD slots. It also offers more advanced set-top boxes that do have card slots, such as an HD digital video recorder (DVR).

At the same time, the FCC issued a two-year waiver to allow Cablevision Systems to use its own SmartCard that only works with its set-top box until July 1, 2009.

The Commission ruled that Cablevision was eligible for the two- year extension because it launched its digital television set- top boxes earlier than most other operators in 2001, making the change in technology something that would affect a greater proportion of its subscribers.