Set-top Battle Continues

The December plug-and-play compatibility agreement between the cable and consumer-electronics industries promised cooperation in creating new TVs that can plug directly into walls and receive digital cable. But the industries continue to split on the key issue of whether to keep the ban, scheduled for Jan. 1, 2005, on "integrated" set-top boxes.

The FCC has called for POD (point-of-deployment) technology, in which conditional-access and other features specific to individual cable systems reside in a detachable POD module. The idea is to promote the retail availability of set-top boxes that are compatible across cable systems.

The cable industry wants to eliminate that ban, saying that the December agreement (along with a 2001 "initiative" for retail availability of STBs) has made the ban unnecessary.

If the ban is eliminated, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association told Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy March 24, "the cooperative inter-industry focus on development of a retail market for cable-ready equipment reflected in the MSO-CE agreement may, in fact, spur leading CE manufacturers, which are now invested in manufacturing POD-enabled digital TVs and other digital equipment for cable companies ... to consider manufacturing cheaper integrated set-top boxes for cable operators and the retail market, thereby further enhancing competition and consumer choice."

Banning the integrated boxes, in contrast, will lead to higher cost and less choice for consumers, NCTA said.

Some CE makers see it differently and want to keep the firm date for POD deployment, saying that future capabilities of cable TV demand it.

"Without a firm, continuing requirement for the utilization of the POD by all parties, there may well not be sufficient future incentive for the incumbent suppliers of cable headend equipment, who are also set-top box suppliers, to cooperate with the cable and consumer electronics industries in ensuring that digital cable services that go beyond unidirectional ones will be supported by either the present POD or future generations of the POD," Panasonic's corporate parent told FCC staff. "The simplicity of the POD requirement is that it establishes a level playing field among all parties that minimizes the need for an ongoing and necessarily intrusive Commission role in resolving disputes about compatibility between bi-directional/interactive and multiple-stream cable services and POD-equipped products."

Zenith, which demonstrated an STB with POD technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, also says the 2005 ban makes sense.

"Without the continued requirement to phase out integrated boxes by a certain time, cable operators will lack sufficient incentives to support POD technology," Zenith told the FCC. "To the contrary, their incentives would be just the opposite: To continue to promote their own integrated set-top boxes so as to keep consumers dependent on their own devices."

Cable may have a strong ally on the issue: FCC Chairman Michael Powell, when he was just a commissioner in a Democrat-controlled panel, dissented from the order banning the STBs.

The deadline for replies to comments to the FCC is April 28.