You Should be Able to Watch TV How You Want
You Should be Able to Watch TV How You Want
You Should be Able to Watch TV How You Want

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    By misreading the law, the FCC took away your ability to buy alternative set-top boxes like Tivo and Smart TVs. We think that’s wrong. 

    recognized customers should not have to rely on their cable companies for a
    set-top box as early as 1996.  When they
    passed the updated Telecommunications Act that year they included Section 629,
    which required the FCC to make sure consumers would have a choice of video
    devices, just like they can pick what kind of TV to buy, or what model of
    wireless handset to use.  

    Just like your ISP doesn’t make its subscribers
    use only Macs, or only PCs, your cable company shouldn’t make subscribers use
    the set-top box it provides.

    implement the law, the FCC and industry created the CableCARD system. Because
    of CableCARD, you can buy a set-top box at a retail store and plug it into your
    cable system.  The device will still work
    even if you switch your provider from Comcast to DirectTV later on. This
    facilitates competition in the subscription TV market by making it easier for
    people to switch providers.  And bringing
    non-affiliated companies into the set-top box market leads to improvements like
    the ability to record TV programs.

    A Limited Exemption Request Goes

    November, Charter Communications asked for a limited waiver from one of the
    CableCARD rules so that it could implement a new security measure in its
    set-top boxes–one that would violate existing CableCARD rules. Public
    Knowledge opposed the waiver

    The FCC’s Media Bureau
    granted Charter the waiver, but it went further than Charter asked, and
    weakened the CableCARD rules significantly. To do so, it relied on a recent
    case from the D.C. Circuit: Echostar v. FCC.

    In the Echostar
    case, for administrative law reasons, the court vacated a recent
    CableCARD-related FCC order.  However,
    this action did not vacate the entire CableCARD regime.

    when granting Charter’s request, the Media Bureau incorrectly interpreted Echostar
    as eliminating CableCARD–effectively making Charter’s request for a limited
    exemption moot.  The Bureau acknowledged
    that granting the waiver could lead to a fractured market for set-top boxes by
    allowing cable companies to adopt differing non-CableCARD security standards.  But it did not find that prospect sufficient to
    deny the waiver request.

    The Wrong Place for Big Changes 

    The Media Bureau interpreted the DC
    Circuit’s opinion in Echostar much too broadly. But even if the Bureau’s
    interpretation of the court’s decision was valid, a waiver request proceeding
    is an inappropriate way to dramatically change the agency’s implementation of a
    statutory mandate. The Media Bureau should not, on its own motion, drastically
    weaken the CableCARD system, leaving Section 629 of the Act without effective

    CableCARD is still the best existing way to implement many of the goals
    of 629. If the Commission wants to replace it CableCARD with something better,
    it must follow its procedural requirements and solicit comment from the public
    before making these kinds of changes. TiVo has asked the Media Bureau to
    reinstate the rules the Bureau struck down, a request PK supports.  Consumers Electronic Association has also asked the Commission to reconsider
    this issue.

    If the Decision Stands, Consumers Lose

    If this decision stands, consumers face rising costs for switching cable
    providers and continue to be denied choice in video devices. CableCARD may not
    be perfect, but until now it has served its purpose to promote competition, and
    facilitate interoperability and device portability. New entrants continue to
    look to it as a way to enter the video device market–for example, Samsung is
    developing a new “Smart Media Player” set-top device that has an embedded
    CableCARD, and will combine access to subscription television with access to
    over-the-top video applications. 

    Section 629 is Still on the Books

    Section 629 is still in effect. The FCC is required to implement the law as
    Congress enacted it, either through CableCARD or some other mechanism, such as
    AllVid. The subscription television
    market has changed dramatically since the Telecommunications Act was passed in
    1996, but the basic principle of Section 629 has not. Consumers should have
    competitive choices in the communications equipment market. Until Section 629
    is effectively implemented with some new technology, the CableCARD rules should
    remain in effect.

    Original image by Flickr user Daniel Go.