How would you like it if, to get on the internet, you had to run an operating system and browser of your ISP's choice? If that were the case, we'd probably all be running Windows ME and Netscape 4. Would you like it if your ISP could take over your browser, providing you with “important” information and targeted advertising? Of course not. When it comes to the internet, almost everyone realizes that it makes no sense to hand control over the software you use to access a network over to the network operator. Choice, competition, and openness lead to innovation, which leads to superior products and a better experience for everyone. But openness has always been missing from the cable TV network. And if the cable industry gets its way with a new technology called “OCAP,” it's going to further increase its control over the network. It wants to mandate what software all consumer devices that receive and decode cable signals must run, and it wants control over the look-and-feel of the devices that attach to the cable network.
Openness is good for consumers. Monopolistic practices and vertical control are not. This is the idea animating Net Neutrality, wireless Carterfone, and similar matters– that network operators should have open, not closed networks, and should not seek to parlay their control over communications bottlenecks into control of related areas. Your cable company controls what is probably the best data pipe into your home, the coaxial cable. This gives them the bandwidth to provide television programming, as well as, in many markets, high-speed internet access. They already control the content of your cable programming (and would love to increase their control over internet content, as well). They also control the hardware that you use to access cable programming– nearly all cable subscribers rent their set-top boxes from the cable company. Now, they want to take over your TV.
To comply with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the cable industry has to make it possible for third parties to create devices that receive and decode cable signals. Television makers, for instance, would like to create TVs that have all the functionality of a cable set-top box built-in. A device called the CableCARD, which was supposed to allow for these kinds of devices, is not compatible with technologies like Video on Demand that require two-way communication between the home and the cable head-end. This incompatibility may put some in the cable industry in violation of the law, since third-party devices must have access to all “video programming.”
To “fix” the situation, CableLabs, the cable industry's research arm, has submitted a proposal for a technology. Here's what they propose: the descrambling hardware CableCARD will be replaced by software called DCAS, a piece of back-end software that decodes encrypted cable signals. To even be able to receive DCAS, the cable industry is requiring third-party devices to license and use another kind of software called OCAP, which controls what the users see and interact with on the device itself. One downside for third party manufacturers implementing OCAP is that it takes over their device which all but eliminates a developers ability to new features, let alone a unified interface. Essentially, the cable industry would like to have near-total control over any device that receives cable signals.
All you users of TiVO, MythTV or Windows Media Center, listen up. Imagine if you were using your device as usual, but when you wanted to schedule a new show to record, you could only use the program guide provided by the cable system–limiting you to the functionality and interface of cable's program guide; gone is the nicer looking and more functional program guide downloaded native on your TiVo. When switching channels, your Myth TV or Media Center's channel overlay would be covered up by the cable provider's interface. Any feature that the cable provider deems in competition with a service provided over OCAP on the third-party device, the OCAP interface and functionality takes precedence. In the PC world, it's the equivalent to an ISP requiring that you use a certain operating system or browser when you are connected to the internet– and reserving for itself the right to take control of your screen.
If CableLabs proposal were adopted, it would give your cable operator near-total control over the look and feel of any device that receives and decodes television programming. The CableLabs proposal would stifle the market for third-party cable devices by reducing an electronics company's ability to innovate and differentiate its products.
Public Knowledge has been concerned with the marketplace for cable set-top boxes for a while now. Just yesterday we joined with several other public interest organizations to send a letter to Chairman Martin of the FCC. We are asking the FCC to seek comment on a proposal by the Consumer Electronic Association that is much more consumer-friendly than the proposal put forth by CableLabs for the successor to CableCard.
Part of the problem of CableLabs' proposal is it makes itself, instead of an independent standards-setting body, the entity entirely in the control of what devices can interact with the cable network. It is not surprising that the cable companies want to maintain their control over competition (or the lack thereof) on the cable network– but thankfully Congress already spoke to that issue and said “open up.” Among other things, the CEA proposal would have these kinds of technical underpinnings created by an independent standards-setting body– the same way that things work for the internet and other industries.
The CEA proposal makes more sense than the CableLabs proposal from both a business and a consumer perspective. However, consumers also depend on electronics companies not to add unnecessary technological limitations to their devices which make it difficult or impossible for them to exercise their right to make legal use of the content they have obtained. Because the CEA proposal does not address this issue, we are also asking the FCC to ensure that any successor to CableCard enables a consumer's legal use rights.
Groups signing the letter (in alphabetical order) are: Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, Knowledge Ecology International, Media Access Project, New America Foundation, Public Knowledge and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
The full text of our letter is available here; the original PDF version is here. Our press release on the matter can be read here.