Step by step, we’re moving toward a more open approach to pay TV.
As we’ve reported, the National Broadband Plan had a very strong section on the importance of competition and innovation in home video devices in spurring broadband adoption.
Currently, people who use broadband-enabled set-top boxes like the Roku, or just attach a PC to their TVs, tend to be more tech savvy, familiar with over-the-top video services like Netflix and Hulu, or might not mind have an extra box by the TV (in addition to a DVD or Blu-Ray player and set-top box). The Broadband Plan reasoned that the wide availability of devices that can access both pay TV and Internet services would spur broadband adoption, and that most people don’t want a separate box or to invest a lot of time to start accessing Internet content on their TV screens. It proposed an idea in line with what Public Knowledge has asked for: a “video device gateway” that standardizes communication with pay TV services in the same way that communication with broadband networks is standardized. Just like computers and other broadband devices all connect to modems through an ethernet cable or over WiFi, and the cable, DSL, or other modem handles the specifics of communication with the broadband network, the “video device gateway” (what the FCC now calls an AllVid adapter—a much catchier name) would both present video services in a standard way to third-party equipment and handle communication with the back-end. It’s a way to achieve standardization while still allowing for a wide variety of different delivery networks for pay TV, such as cable, fiber, copper telephone lines, and satellite.
The Broadband Plan has no legal authority of its own—it’s just a persuasive and well-researched document. The Commission put out its first batch of proceedings yesterday to begin to implement its recommendations. Included was Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on fixing the existing CableCARD system that allows third-party devices like PCs and DVRs to access some cable programming, and a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) on how the AllVid adapter should work. An NPRM is the document the FCC puts out when it has a pretty clear idea of what it wants to do, and seeks public input. This NPRM, for instance, contains an appendix of the text of the regulatory changes the FCC is thinking about. After a period public comment, the FCC can release an Order that brings new rules into effect, taking into account any new data or arguments put before it during the comment period. While the NOI contains a lot of detail about what the FCC is thinking about doing with the AllVid adapter concept, it does not contain any exact proposed rules, asks a lot more questions, and will have to be followed up by a NPRM of its own before there can be an Order.
The NPRM is absolutely necessary. Many consumers and devices today rely on CableCARD, and it might take some time to fully deploy AllVid. The proposed rules are for the most part good—they included some needed changes to CableCARD billing transparency and installation procedures. Unfortunately, the principle of “common reliance”—that cable systems would be most likely to work with CableCARD if cable companies had to use it for all their own set-top boxes—might be left behind. Cable systems should continue to use CableCARD devices for their systems, and if there are any exceptions, they should be limited to smaller cable systems (as the NPRM suggests as an option). The NPRM is also a bit wobbly on how to achieve two-way compatibility for third-party devices—the ability to send signals back upstream that is not only needed to order things like video-on-demand, but also to even watch “switched digital” channels (which, to save bandwidth, are shut off until someone wants to watch them).
The NOI is great—I only wish that it, too, was an NPRM. The AllVid adapter is a technology that can improve the home media experience and break down the barriers between broadband and pay TV, and the sooner it’s deployed, the better.