CES is Shaped by DC Policy
CES is Shaped by DC Policy
CES is Shaped by DC Policy

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    This week the tech world will descend on Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show.  While there is nothing subtle about a 152-inch 3D plasma TV there are plenty of subtle forces coming from DC that shape what you see at shows like CES and at retailers like Amazon and Best Buy.  Here are just four examples.

    AllVid or Why Can’t Apple, Google, Microsoft, Roku, and Boxee Boxes Get Cable Channels?

    AllVid is a standard being considered by the FCC that would allow anything with a screen to display the video content you pay for.  As you walk around the floor, you will see plenty of boxes that do lots of neat internet things from Apple, Roku, Google, Microsoft, and Boxee.  You probably will not see any that could replace your cable or satellite box that does just one thing.   Imagine if you did – one box (or a screen that integrates that box like a smartphone or tablet) that integrates everything.  You could seamlessly switch from a live football game to Food Network on demand to a Netflix streaming movie to Diggnation.  One remote, one interface, all of your content.

    As we have written in the past, it is not like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Roku, Boxee, and the rest do not realize that you might like to access both pay-TV and internet content in one place.  Instead cable and satellite companies, along with some studios, have effectively slowed AllVid’s progress at the FCC.  Until the FCC moves on AllVid, expect pay-TV content on innovative devices to be limited to a handful of restrictive deals between deep-pocketed incumbents.

    Spectrum Policy or Why Isn’t Everything I Own Talking to Everything Else?

    CES will have huge booths packed with great 4G wireless devices from manufacturers large and small that operate on spectrum licensed to the major cellular carriers.  However, those booths will pale in comparison with the number of WiFi and Bluetooth offerings that use unlicensed spectrum that no central authority controls.  Maintaining a balance between licensed and unlicensed spectrum is key to maximizing wireless innovation.

    That is especially true this year, as the TV Whitespaces come online.  Although this unlicensed spectrum is often described as “WiFi on steroids,” it really is much more than that.  The smart radios that power Whitespaces devices allow them to change how they operate based on where they are and what is around them, so they don’t interfere with their neighbors.  This opens up lots more spectrum to use than the traditional “one set of rules based on the worst case scenario” approach.  If Whitespaces are allowed to succeed, this type of smart wireless networking will be the future of communication.

    Data Caps or Why Is My Fancy New Internet Video Device Dark?

    Even beyond the booths mentioned above, CES will be crawling with companies offering devices designed to allow you to access video over the internet.  However, none of those are worth very much if your ISP imposes strict caps on how much data you can use.  Although monthly data caps are ineffective ways to address network congestion – a momentary phenomenon – more and more ISPs (both wired and wireless) are turning to them. 

    Wireless data caps are problematic because they undercut one of the most effective ways to bring broadband to communities that are currently unable to easily access the internet.  Wired caps raise anticompetitive concerns when the same company that is selling you television service imposes caps that make it impossible to switch to an internet-based alternative.  By the way, you can learn more about your own data cap at our recently launched site WhatIsMyCap.org.

    SOPA and PIPA or Why Did Innovation Die?

    If CES parties are chattering about one policy issue, it will probably be SOPA and PIPA.  These bills have been garnering a great deal of attention lately, and for good reason.  In addition to the litany of specific concerns that PK and others have expressed about the bills, they represent the latest attempt by big media to control how content is distributed and consumed.  This is a trend that reaches at least as far back as the VCR and cassette tape, carried though attempts to kill MP3 players, and is with us today. 

    Even though yesterday’s scary threat is often today’s industry cash cow (the once evil VCRs gave us DVDs which the MPAA is now willing to do anything to protect), big media refuses to tolerate any new ideas it cannot control.  Big content’s innovation looks like SACD, not MP3.  At the core of the Internet’s ability to empower speech and drive economic growth is the ability to innovate freely.  If big media can install itself as a gatekeeper, that innovation wilts.

    So enjoy the strolling the floor of CES and taking in the dazzling displays.  However, when you finally get a chance to sit down and rest, don’t forget that (for better or worse) decisions made here in DC have a huge influence on what is unveiled in Las Vegas.