FCC Upholds CableCARD for Most Operators; Requests Input on Two-Way Devices

The FCC denied a request from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association asking for a waiver of the FCC’s rules on integrated set-top boxes, which took effect July 1, 2007. The rules require separation of the security element from the host device, allowing consumers to receive encrypted cable signals using equipment “from manufacturers, retailers, and other vendors not affiliated with any multichannel video programming distributor.” MVPDs were allowed to offer integrated devices until Jan. 1, 2005. This deadline was extended to July 1, 2006 in April 2003, and to July 1, 2007 in 2005, in response to a request from cable operators.

While the FCC did not grant waivers for all cable systems, it gave MVPDs that are currently all digital or are going all digital by Feb. 17, 2009 an omnibus waiver of the ban. The FCC noted, “An all-digital conversion will facilitate the DTV transition, enable expanded service offerings, promote efficient use of the spectrum, deliver broadband services, spur competitive entry and expand universal service.”

The Media Bureau said the commission would be deferring enforcement of the deadline for small cable operators who could show that they had placed orders for compliant set-top boxes, but whose orders would not be delivered in time to comply with the deadline. (Small cable operators may face problems complying with the July 1, 2007 deadline because manufacturers prioritize orders from the largest MVPDs.)

Separate security is currently implemented using CableCARDs. Cable companies lease CableCARDs to customers wanting to use a “Digital Cable-Ready” TV set without a set-top box. CableCARDs are also the only way consumers who want to use a home theater PC media centers to receive and record encrypted programming, although at this time CableCARDs only work on certified HTPCs using Windows Vista Media Center.

CableCARD-ready devices have limited functionality. On June 29, the FCC released a Third Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making (FCC-07-120) requesting, “comment on proposed standards to insure bidirectional compatibility of cable television systems and consumer electronics equipment.”

The FCC also asked whether the proceeding should apply to other noncable MPVDs and whether there are technological solutions that are network agnostic and deployable across all MVPD platforms such as DBS, IPTV, or hybrid QAM/IP. The FCC noted, “It is apparent that consumers have not shown significant interest in one-way devices, which cannot access features such as EPGs, VOD, PPV and other ITV capabilities provided by cable operators.”

The FCC requested comments on proposals from the Consumer Electronics Association and from NCTA, as well as comment any other proposals or rule changes it should consider in order to permit the development of two-way cable-ready devices.

The FNPRM states, “As the digital television transition approaches, we do not want to lose the potential opportunity for consumers to purchase competitive devices before the last major holiday season prior to the transition. We seek comment on whether a competitive market would offer further incentive for consumers to transition from analog to digital devices.”

The FNPRM noted that the commission would like for consumers to be able to purchase two-way digital cable-ready devices the Q4 final holiday shopping season of 2008. This would better prepare viewers for the mandated Feb. 17, 2009 digital television transition.

The FNPRM concluded, “We seek comment on whether that goal is feasible and the steps we must adopt in order to achieve that goal. We also solicit comment on any specific rules we should adopt to ensure that we achieve a practical bidirectional solution that furthers the goals of Section 629 of the Act.”

The FCC Web site has additional information on the waiver requests and the Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making.

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.