A Reader’s Guide to the Latest in the Two-Way Talks
by Leslie Ellis // September 03 2007
In case you’re out of late summer reading, or were wondering whatever happened with those “two-way negotiations” between cable and the consumer electronics industry, there’s always those 500+ pages of collective snark sent to the Federal Communications Commission on August 24.
The comments — submitted by the lawyers of AT&T, Comcast, DirecTV, EchoStar, Intel, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, TiVo, and Verizon (among others), as well as by trade groups like the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable Television Association — were filed in response to the FCC’s Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, issued in late June.
That’s the one that seeks the next chapter of the one-way plug-and-play rules, established in 2002. It was the one-way rules that gave us those instantly obsolete TVs with built-in CableCard slots.
(To find the reply comment mother lode, go to www.fcc.gov, click on the “search” button at the top right of the screen, scroll down to “Search for Filed Comments — ECFS” and enter in proceeding number 97-80. Otherwise, read on. This week’s translation begins to summarize 16 of the 100+ filings.)
It really isn’t as dull as it sounds. This is five years of pent-up frustration (and God knows how many aggregate air miles), trapped inside a gag order. If you’ve been following it, it’s one of those scuffles that forever elicits the same tense retort: “I just can’t talk about it.”
After a while, we all quit asking. That’s why it feels nearly voyeuristic to dip into the pages and pages of comments.
If your time is limited, or if you’re just not into reading that many FCC filings, start with the 80-page seethe from the National Cable Television Association. It’s deliciously pointed. The gloves are off. Even the footnotes are juicy.
Cable’s irritation is directed at the collective bunch of respondents who believe, with casual fervor, that cable services — specifically, the guide, on-demand, pay-per-view, and switched digital video — should be physically decoupled from the cable plant, and handed over to the devices that would play them.
At the helm of that idea is the Consumer Electronics Industry (filing: 163 pages), with its “DCR+” proposal, where DCR stands for Digital Cable Ready, with that plus sign.
NCTA calls DCR+ “consumer minus,” and rails that “the CEA proposal would be the most intrusive regulatory regime ever established.” (Ever.)
To do what CE side wants, NCTA argues, would require a massive do-over of the protocols currently used by cable to do VOD, the guide, pay-per view, and switched video. It would require new multi-stream cards, and new versions of leased set-tops. But, as NCTA puts it, “CEA is indifferent to engineering realities in cable.”
Beyond CEA, though, it’s nearly impossible to clump out who’s on which side. Most of the respondents support parts of the cable proposal, parts of the CEA’s proposal, and parts of their own proposals.
Industrial discord, even within the constituent camps, isn’t a big surprise. Everybody wants to protect their babies. Finding useful agreement amongst the multichannel video providers (“MVPD”) who filed, however, is somewhat surprising.
The point of accord, loosely paraphrased: It’s a bad idea for government to specify technologies in a rule. Different platforms (cable, satellite, telephone) use different technologies to reach consumers, and that’s as it should be. Let networks be networks. Encourage some kind of common interface, to let consumer devices attach to network services.
Naturally, the non-cable MVPDs argued loudly that they don’t want that common interface to come from their cable competitors. AT&T played the “we’re not a cable service” card; DirecTV and EchoStar, exempt so far from any navigation device rules, asked to keep that status.
Bogus, said cable (repeatedly). The existing “negotiations” are bounded to an FCC ruling that’s more than 10 years old. Back then, satellite providers hadn’t made much of a dent in subscription television. Video wasn’t yet a twinkle in telco budgets. DSL was the name of their game.
The NCTA’s filing should be required reading for everyone who reads this newspaper — especially if you’ve ever wondered, but didn’t want to ask, what the heck this “OpenCable Platform” thing is really all about.
This column originally appeared in the Technology section of Multichannel News.