The Difference Between ‘Gateways' and ‘Set-Tops'

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By now, you’ve probably heard about the FCC’s new “Broadband Plan,” and the onus it places on video providers.

Refresher: This time the outcome - whatever it ends up being - will apply to all multichannel video providers, not just cable. By December of 2012.

If you lived through regulatory chapters that bequeathed the one-way CableCard agreement, then the two-way deal that wound up as the Tru2way landscape, the relief is palpable.

This time, everyone gets their hands tied behind their backs. Yay.

Now comes the hard part - sifting through what the commission means by “gateway device.”

The FCC is very, very clear about all that’s wrong with the traditional set-top box. While acknowledging that set-tops are “an important part of the broadband ecosystem,” it chastises the lack of innovation in set-tops, which “limits what consumers can do and their choices to consume video.”

Set-tops, the plan says, “may also be inhibiting business models that could serve as a powerful driver for the adoption and utilization of broadband, such as models that integrate traditional TV and the Internet.”

Never mind that every new HDTV and 3DTV at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show came with Ethernet and/or Wi-Fi. By next year, you won’t be able to buy one that doesn’t have a broadband connection.

No, what the FCC wants to see happen is a new line of “gateway devices.”

The lingual history of video technology contains two camps: gateways and set-tops. “Gateways” almost singularly hail from the Internet-y, broadband-y, IP-heavy side of the scene. This is neither good nor bad; it just is. A gateway, in this context, is a cable modem tricked out with accoutrements that give it more of a foothold into traditional TV.

Set-tops, by contrast, started with TV, and are increasingly tricked out with stuff that makes them more useful to IP, broadband and screens other than the TV. Most advanced set-tops used in cable, for instance - think dual-tuner HD-DVR units here - come with an embedded DOCSIS cable modem.

So far, that built-in DOCSIS modem does business-side signaling, like conditional access and encryption data, guide updates, behind-the-scenes activities. But it’s there.

So, modems with video spigots or set-tops with broadband spigots?

That’s why it’ll be worth watching, with vigilance, what the FCC means by the words “or functional equivalent.” Those three words should produce an actual bill of materials for the “gateway,” so we can see the specifics of what’s probably already there anyway.

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