A Reader’s Guide to the Plug & Play Report & Order
by Leslie Ellis // October 20 2003
A time-consuming truth about how to interpret regulatory language is the need to really read it, beginning to end, to best absorb the cadence and gestalt of the situation. The same is true of technical specifications.
Reading, versus skimming, is like learning a foreign language by physically moving into a house that speaks only that language, versus learning a foreign language by cracking a textbook on alternating Tuesday evenings.
There’s no shortage of “foreign language” in the Federal Communication Commission’s recent Report & Order on plug & play devices, especially for those of us who aren’t neck-deep in the situation – or who are knee-deep in several other absorbing matters.
This week’s translations thus aim to serve as a sort of “reader’s guide” to the more frequent terms seasoning the 85-page FCC proceeding. (This isn’t so bad, as page counts go. The Digital Video Broadcast/Multimedia Home Platform, or “DVB-MHP” specification, is a stout 1,153 pages.)
First, a bit of context. The FCC ruling exists to mesh two complicated current events: The “digital transition,” and a 1996 Congressional mandate to make things like set-tops available at stores. Essentially, it covers everything to do with keeping premium digital video channels safe from theft, and copyrighted material safe from unauthorized duplication, in a world where set-tops don’t only come from service providers. No easy feat.
The easy terms
One acronym appears over and over in the ruling: “MVPD.” It’s an easy one: Multichannel Video Programming Distributors,” like cable and direct broadcast satellite companies.
Another fairly easy one: “Unidirectional” digital cable receivers. “Uni” means single. One. Unicycle: One wheel. Unidirectional: One way, from the signal collection point (headend) to the receiver (home).
(“Unidirectional” gets you smart points if you’re talking to an engineer. “One way” gets you gratitude points if you’re talking to anyone else.)
It follows that the “bi” in “bi-directional” digital cable receivers means “two,” or “both.” Two-ways: From headend to home, and back.
Don’t Down-Rez Me
It’s not so easy after that. Take “down-resolution,” for instance, which people tend to shorten and use as a verb: “Down-rez.” To down-rez is to remove parts of a TV picture’s information, which lessens its resolution. It’s like trying to un-cook a stew, remove a few ingredients, and still call it a stew.
More specifically, think of what it would take to reduce a high-definition TV picture into a standard-definition TV picture (which is equivalent to today’s digital cable services.) That’s down-resolution.
“Down-rez” usually swirls around discussions about copyright protection over analog connectors on digital TVs and set-tops. The thinking: If the quality of the picture is lessened, it’s perhaps not as tempting to would-be thieves.
As for consumers who already own digital TVs with an analog spigot, “down-rez” means they’d at least have a picture, rather than a blank screen, if a copyright holder (studio) were to restrict its wares (hit movies) over an analog connector.
Like its position on selectable output controls, translated in the October 6, 2003 edition, cable’s stance is to abstain from down-resolution — so long as the DBS providers abstain, too.
The FCC said no to down-resolution for broadcast, over-the-air programming. For movies or other types of digital video content, though, it wants more information about how best to proceed.
In the meantime, if cable or DBS providers want to do any down-rezing, they need to notify the FCC a month before they do it.
Despite the work of cable’s marketers to replace the creepy-sounding “POD” (for “Point of Deployment Module”) with “CableCARD,” the FCC ruling nonetheless teems with PODs. And there’s a new POD in the game: The “Multi-stream POD.”
A “multi-stream POD” is all about the number of tuners in consumer devices. Think of digital video recoders, or DVRs. They started out with a single tuner, meaning that customers were prevented from watching one channel, while recording another. Adding a second tuner corrects that — but what if both tuners are parked on premium channels?
Right now, CableCARDs can handle one encrypted program at a time. The need to do more than one gave life to “multi-stream POD.” Essentially, it’s a CableCARD that can decrypt two or more digital video streams at a time. It’s on the to-do list for the two-way portion of the cable/consumer electronics negotiations, which continue at a concentrated pace.
The 85-page FCC ruling also includes a “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” which roughly means “more stuff that needs reflection before rules can be developed.”
More on that next time.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.
Getting to Know ‘(No) Selectable Outputs’
by Leslie Ellis // October 06 2003
Two words, tucked together inside the “plug & play” agreement, are causing more than a few quizzical expressions lately – and especially since the Federal Communications Commission approved the collaborative work of cable and consumer electronics companies last month.
The words: “Selectable outputs.”
“Selectable outputs,” as a technical term, is puzzling because its component words are ordinary. We all know what “selectable” means, and we all know what “outputs” are.
If you’re like me, when you hear the two together, “selectable outputs” makes sense, at first. You think you know what it means: A choice of plugs.
By then, the conversation containing “selectable outputs” probably corkscrewed into the acronyms of copyright talk. Suddenly — maybe as you’re trying to backwards-conjugate the HDTV verb “down-rez” — you realize that the whole “selectable output” scene is noisy with subtleties.
(“Down-rez,” for what it’s worth, doesn’t backwards or forward conjugate, but it’s an accepted shop-talk verb to describe the lessening of picture resolution.)
As a reference point, here’s how “selectable outputs” is used within the 78-page Memorandum of Understanding sent by cable and consumer electronics (CE) companies to the FCC last December: “The parties agree to publicly advocate the elimination of any MVPD device obligation to respond to commands as to selectable output controls …”
At its core, the “selectable outputs” riddle taunts the connectors on the backsides of CE, cable and satellite boxes. More specifically, it anoints certain connectors trustworthy of carrying copyrighted, digital material across their pins – but not others.
What’s “selectable” about a “selectable output,” for example, is whether that output can be selected to not work, when the payload is copyrighted digital video.
That could happen, CE technologists say, if studios injected a sort of “cripple code” into their digital video payload. The code alerts a cable or satellite set-top box to disable certain outputs. The bits stop there.
Which outputs are at stake? Right now, there are four possible connectors (“outputs”) – two analog, two digital — that come with digital and high definition TVs. Analog outputs include RGB, for Red-Green-Blue component output, or the (splendidly nerdy) YPbPr.
The digital outputs: IEEE 1394 “firewire,” and “DVI,” for Digital Visual Interface.
Recall that connector conversations almost always come in twos: The name of the connector, and the name of the copy protection that safeguards whatever gushes out of that connector. The 1394/firewire connector uses “5C” protection, and DVI uses “HDCP,” or “High bandwidth Digital Copy Protection.” (For details on connectors and copyright protection, see the 1/13/2003 edition.)
Analog has no bodyguard, which is why it’s called “the analog hole.” This is “hole” as in “black hole.” Content theoretically falls into it and disappears. Or, worse, copyrighted material gets duplicated zillions of times and shared over the Internet.
It is precisely this fear of rebel duplication and distribution (by studios and copyright holders) that begat the notion of “selectable outputs,” which, in turn, begat the counter-notion of “no selectable outputs” from the CE industry.
Why? Say you’re a TV manufacturer. Last year, or the year before, you sold a guy an HDTV set, for the equivalent of his last three paychecks. Maybe it had an analog connector and 1394, but not DVI.
One night, the TV doesn’t seem to work. Naturally, this happens just as the family settles in for a movie. It happened because a code inside the movie disabled its transit to the screen. Would that be okay with you? What would you say to your customer?
(Were this to actually happen, technologists say, movie studios would probably allow the DVI/HDCP connector/copy protection duo, because it handily has but one setting: Copy never.)
All major negotiations have some give and take. In the early plug & play discussions, “no selectable outputs” was one of cable’s “gives” to the CE side, but with a very specific proviso: Satellite providers must also agree to “no selectable outputs.”
That reasoning: If DirecTV and EchoStar aren’t exposed to the same rules, a studio could give them an earlier release window on a popular movie.
The thing to know about the two words “selectable outputs,” whether or not a “no” precedes them, is that they nearly always have the same word trailing them: “Control.” And when a control lever is in play between partners and rivals – variously cable, satellite, CE and Hollywood — it’s a control lever worth watching.
Speaking of which: At press time last week, the FCC was on the brink of releasing details about its approval of the overall plug & play agreement. Its position on “selectable outputs” was one that observers were hawkishly awaiting.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.