FCC Requests Comments on Scrambling Basic Digital Cable Services

The number of e-mails from people who found my name when Googling for information on how to pick up digital cable channels on their DTV sets indicates many people are watching these unencrypted channels on second sets or even their main TV. Anyone who is currently watching basic digital channels or recording them on a DVR without a set-top box may be impacted by an FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) (FCC 11-153) that would allow cable companies to encrypt even basic digital channels. Cable operators want the flexibility to encrypt all channels because it will allow them to shut off or restore service to a household without sending a truck and serviceman to physically unhook or connect the cable going to the household. You can imagine how complicated this is in apartment buildings in large cities.

There is no benefit for existing cable subscribers. In the NPRM the FCC is attempting to change the rules to give cable operators more flexibility without disenfranchising people currently watching or recording basic digital cable. The NRPM explains it this way: "Although we expect the number of subscribers in these situations to be relatively small, these consumers may be affected by lifting the encryption prohibition for all-digital cable systems. Accordingly, we tentatively conclude that any operators of all-digital cable systems that choose to encrypt the basic service tier must comply with certain consumer protection measures for a limited period of time in order to minimize any potential subscriber disruption." The "small" number, by the way, came from a study by Cablevision, the company requesting authority to encrypt basic digital cable. Supporters argued that " that there are very few people who subscribe only to the basic service tier in all-digital systems and therefore the overwhelming majority of subscribers to all-digital systems already have a set-top box or CableCARD-equipped retail device and therefore would be unaffected by encryption of the basic service tier."

While this may be true, the number of all digital cable systems is currently small compared with those still offering some analog content, but as more cable systems drop analog I would expect the number of viewers subscribing to the basic tier only on these systems to increase. Anyone who has recently researched flat screen HDTV sets knows that while there were some sets available a few years ago, today it is very hard to find a popular HDTV set with CableCARD capability. While it seems it would be easy to support CableCARDs in computer-based DTV receiving/recording systems, the certification requirements for CableCARDs makes this virtually impossible unless the CableCARD socket is built into the tuner, as is the case with the new SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime. If you want to continue to have the ability to receive basic cable on any DTV set or if you are a cable guy who'd rather have the folks back in the office turn service on and off than pay workers to climb poles and connect and remove cables, then the NPRM provides an opportunity for you to let the FCC know how they should proceed.

The FCC asks these questions, "We seek comment on the specific criteria that the Commission should use to determine what constitutes an all-digital cable system. For example, what if a system transmits nearly all of its channels solely in digital, but maintains a single, unencrypted analog channel to inform potential subscribers about how to subscribe to service? We seek comment also about digital cable services that are not QAM-based. Is it appropriate to include IP and other non-QAM digital cable services in the definition of an all-digital cable system for the purposes of the proposed rule revision? We also seek comment on whether the Commission should revise the encryption rule with respect to any hybrid (analog/digital) systems where basic service tier programming is provided digitally but the cable operator also continues to provide some analog service to its subscribers (which is the case in many cable systems today). Would revision of the encryption rule with respect to those systems have any attendant benefits given that remote activation and deactivation of cable service is not feasible in hybrid systems?"

Filing comments is easy using the FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System. Use Proceeding Number "11-169" and verify the proceeding is titled, "In the Matter of Basic Service Tier Encryption Compatibility Between Cable Systems and Consumer Electronics Equipment." The current proposal only affects digital-only cable systems, but as noted earlier the number of digital-only systems will grow as demand for analog cable TV diminishes.

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. As vice president of Broadcast Technology for NBCUniversal Local, H. Douglas Lung leads NBC and Telemundo-owned stations’ RF and transmission affairs, including microwave, radars, satellite uplinks, and FCC technical filings. Beginning his career in 1976 at KSCI in Los Angeles, Lung has nearly 50 years of experience in broadcast television engineering. Beginning in 1985, he led the engineering department for what was to become the Telemundo network and station group, assisting in the design, construction and installation of the company’s broadcast and cable facilities. Other projects include work on the launch of Hawaii’s first UHF TV station, the rollout and testing of the ATSC mobile-handheld standard, and software development related to the incentive auction TV spectrum repack.
A longtime columnist for TV Technology, Doug is also a regular contributor to IEEE Broadcast Technology. He is the recipient of the 2023 NAB Television Engineering Award. He also received a Tech Leadership Award from TV Tech publisher Future plc in 2021 and is a member of the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society and the Society of Broadcast Engineers.