Way back in 1996, Congress declared an end to the cable companies’ monopoly on set top boxes. In an attempt to create a market in third-party boxes, the Telecommunications Act ordered the cable operators to split the tuning function of decoding cable signals and the “conditional access” function of determining which services a subscriber was entitled to.
Seen any third-party boxes at your local BestBuy lately? I didn’t think so. In one of the most successful acts in the history of regulatory foot-dragging, the cable industry has spent the last 13 years making sure it maintained control of the boxes and a compliant Congress and Federal Communications Commission have let them get away with it.
The newly invigorated FCC may be about to change that. As part of its National Broadband Plan project, the FCC has published a notice (PDF) requesting comment on ways to create consumer choice in set top boxes. This could be a first step toward an effective implementation of this now antique congressional mandate.
Rules requiring the separation of the tuning and conditional-access functions actually took effect in 2007, with the conditional access role being offloaded to a device called a CableCARD, which, as the FCC says in its notice has “resulted in limited success in developing a retail market for navigation devices.”
The big reason for this is that it’s very difficult to get your cable operator to provide you with a CableCARD and if you succeed, it is very difficult to get it to work in anything but a box provided by the operator. At best, using a CableCARD in a third-party box will deprive you of such services as pay-per-view and on-demand video. On systems that use digital swicthing to conserve bandwidth, CableCARDs may not work at all.
The cost of this failure to consumers has been high in two different ways. First, we have had to paid whatever the cable companies cared to charge to rent their boxes. Second, we’ve been stuck with the mediocre Motorola and Cisco (Scientific Atlanta) boxes they chose to make available. If you could get the CarbleCARDs (a separate card is required for each tuner) to work properly, a TiVO HD could showing you what you were missing with the operator-provided boxes.
The cable industry’s solution to the deficiencies of CablewCARD was supposed to be a software layer for set top boxes called tru2way. But tru2way has enormous defects of its own. As the call for comments explains it in FCC legalese: “Certification for plug-and-play devices is costly and complex.14 The tru2way license requires device manufacturers to separate cable navigation from all other functions that the device performs. On the other hand, devices like TiVo, Moxi, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, AppleTV, Roku, Sony’s Playstation 3, and Vudu each use a consistent menu as they navigate through video content regardless of its source.” In other words, the CableCARD-tru2way combo is designed to give a lousy user experience, and it succeeds.
The link to the National Broadband Plan–the fact that the shortcomings of CableCARD and tru2way are impeding the convergence of broadcast, cable, and Internet TV–seems a bit tenuous. But if it gives the FCC a stick to beat the cable industry with and get some long overdue movement, it’s a good thing.