Way back in 1996, Congress told the Federal Communications Commission to “…assure the commercial availability to consumers of multichannel video programming … of converter boxes … from manufacturers, retailers, and other vendors not affiliated with any multichannel video programming distributor.” In other words, if you wanted something other than the miserable set top box your cable company wanted to rent you, you’d be able to pop over to your local BestBuy and pick one up.
The cable industry’s answer was the CableCARD and a software package called Tru2way. But 14 years later the number of retail cable boxes–mostly TiVo Series 3s, HDs, and Premieres–remains minuscule and Tru2way is little more than a notion. It’s a pain to get a cable company to support CableCARD installations and once you do, you lose such features as video on demand and pay-per-view. In other words, the whole project has been an abject failure.
Now, as part of the National Broadband Plan, the FCC is trying again. It has published a Notice of Inquiry as the first step toward implementation of a concept it calls AllVid, a sort of universal gateway that would connect your TV to cable, satellite, or cable-like (i.e., Verizon FiOS or AT&T uVerse) services as well as Internet video. “This approach,” the notice says, “would provide the necessary flexibility for consumer electronics manufacturers to develop new technologies, including combining MVPD [multichannel video programming distributor] content with over-the-top video services (such as videos offered from, for example, Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, or NetFlix), manipulating the channel guide, providing more advanced parental controls, providing new user interfaces, and integrating with mobile devices.”
Much of the notice is a recitation of the failures of previous approaches and the rest with proposed technical specifications for AllVid. But far more important than any details is how the FCC will overcome the genius of the cable industry in its CableLabs research arm to turn arguments over technical specifications into years of delay and inaction. The FCC proposes that cable operators should offer AllVid options to their customers by Dec. 31, 2012, an outcome I regard as about as likely as the sudden outbreak of world peace* and universal harmony. For the moment, though, interested parties have 60 days following publication of the notice in the Federal Register to submit their comments to the FCC.
*–Originally appeared as “world peach,” which explains an otherwise mystifying remark in a comment.