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No Set-top Box Waiver for Comcast

The FCC refused to grant Comcast a waiver of the ban on integrated cable set-top boxes, meaning the cable giant cannot deploy new STBs with the security features built-in.

The ban is part of the policy for cable operators to eventually deploy set-top boxes (such as CableCARD-ready devices) that have separate security and tuning functions. The theory is that boxes with separable security will drive a vibrant retail marketplace for set-top boxes that consumers can use across different cable systems.

The commission upheld a June refusal by the FCC Media Bureau to grant Comcast the waiver. The company had argued, among other things, that a waiver to the ban would help it develop new advanced services, and that the added cost of the newer boxes would be passed on to consumers. Comcast complained that many other video providers were granted relief to deploy certain low-cost, low-functionality integrated boxes in the interim, for example, if they committed to go all-digital by Feb. 17, 2009.

But Comcast, which has thousands of analog customers, has not made such a commitment.

Two commissioners, Democrat Jonathan Adelstein and Republican Robert McDowell, supported the full commission decision but blasted the circumstances that led to “inconsistent and arbitrary application of the waiver standard” by the Media Bureau.

“Comcast filed a petition for three set-top box models: Motorola’s DCT-700, Scientific-Atlanta’s Explorer 940; and Pace Micro’s Chicago set-top boxes,” they wrote. “Many other waiver applicants sought and were granted relief for exactly the same boxes covered by the Comcast request. The basis for granting the waivers had nothing to do with the boxes—in each instance, the bureau found the two-way functionality of these boxes to be too advanced to qualify as limited-capability devices. Instead, the bureau orders [granted] waivers based on certain characteristic of the operator ... most often the operator’s commitment to migrate to an all-digital network before the digital transition date for broadcast television.”

Comcast will deploy more expensive separable-security boxes, while the customers of other companies will pay less for integrated boxes with the same functions, the company said.

“That result doesn’t make sense—for consumers, for MVPDs, for the consumer electronics industry, or for the creation of the national retail market Congress intended,” Adelstein and McDowell wrote.

Comcast’s next option is to take the commission ruling to federal court.