The FCC's Dumb-Box Idea: Who Wants Interactive TV, Anyway?

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After considering evidence that CableCards don’t work, and the fact that the vast majority of consumer prefer to lease their set-tops from their TV provider, the FCC apparently is proposing to require the cable industry provide severely dumbed-down “gateways” to customers who don’t want a cable box (see FCC Wants Cable To Adopt Open-Standard ‘Gateway’ Device To Replace Set-Tops In 2012).

With one of the FCC’s imagined gateways — confusingly, this idea is part of the national broadband plan (more on that in a second) — you wouldn’t be able to access VOD from your provider. Or any interactive apps or widgets.

No on-screen guide. No interactive ads (sorry, Canoe). No HSN Shop by Remote. No games. Or Facebook or Twitter on your TV.

Nope, this rudimentary gateway would simply strip out linear TV channels that are part of your programming package, so that third-party devices (like TiVo DVRs) could front-end them with their own on-screen menus. “The FCC wants the new ‘gateway’ to be a standard interface that ‘bridges’ conditional access, tuning and reception functions, period, sans additional functionality,” reports Multichannel News‘ John Eggerton.

Is this progress?

To me, it sounds more like the government forcing, say, Taco Bell to sell taco ingredients without a shell to make it easier for customers who would rather eat their tacos wrapped in a spinach tortilla. (After years of intense lobbying by spinach-tortilla manufacturers.)

Here are DirecTV’s Jan. 27 comments on this issue: “DIRECTV offers a service, not simply a pipe to the home through which its customers an access television programming. … This debate is really about whether the government will, by regulatory fiat, enable consumer electronics manufacturers to disaggregate the DIRECTV service and repackage it in order to capture the attendant revenues. Such disaggregation may be a goal of the consumer electronics industry. But, given the harms associated with such a government mandate, DIRECTV believes it would disserve the public interest.”

The NCTA also hates the idea of the gateway, and last Friday proposed seven “principles” that the trade group says would provide market-driven choices to consumers, not a single government-mandated option (see NCTA Outlines Seven Consumer Principles For FCC). By contrast, NCTA has endorsed an “all-MVPD” solution that would present the services of any provider on any compatible device (see One Set-Top to Rule Them All).

On the gateway idea, the question, again, is whether the cost of imposing solution will result in something a large number of people actually want.

Given that the cable industry has spent more than a billion dollars complying with the FCC’s CableCard rules, and only 443,000 CableCards — which essentially perform the same function as the proposed dumb gateways do — are being used with third-party CE devices, I think the answer is: probably not.

Meanwhile: What the heck is the question of set-tops doing as part of the national broadband plan? Good question. It’s kind of a stretch, but the FCC somehow thinks that “fixing” the CableCard regime in this way will result in more retail boxes that can access Internet-delivered video content and thereby spur adoption of broadband.

That’s a lot of assumptions.

And it would be an enormous expense to impose on the likes of DirecTV, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon — and their customers — based merely on a whole bunch of ifs.

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