Will the FCC Mandate IP Video Streaming to iPads?

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The industry is in the midst of a raging debate over whether cable operators like Time Warner Cable and Cablevision have the right to stream live TV over IP to iPads and other devices in a subscriber’s home (see Time Warner Cable Yanks 12 Networks From iPad App and Cablevision Awaiting Apple Approval For iPad Video App).

Makes those old CableCard rules seem even more quaint and irrelevant, doesn’t it?

The 10 biggest U.S. cable operators have now deployed more than 27 million set-tops with CableCards since the FCC began forcing them to do so as of July 1, 2007, the NCTA said in its quarterly report Thursday to the agency.

Again, that billion-dollar-plus investment by the industry was supposed to somehow encourage sales of CableCard-compatible devices at retail. Never really happened: To date, those 10 MSOs have issued some 572,000 standalone CableCards for use in retail devices like TiVo DVRs.

Now the FCC is considering a successor to CableCard, the so-called AllVid proposal, that would force all pay-TV providers — cable, satellite and telco — to conform to government-mandated technical standards geared around IP video (see The Weird Double Standard of AllVid’s Boosters).

That would, of course, impose a considerable cost on MVPDs to comply. I still wonder if the costs of such a regulation would outweigh the benefits. (Just look at what a bust the CableCard and FireWire rules for operator set-tops have been.)

On the other hand, an FCC AllVid mandate would — with one regulatory flourish — eliminate any question about whether MVPDs (and their customers) have the right to deliver TV programming to any IP device in the home. Indeed, cable operators would be required to do that!

It would still, in my opinion, be preferable to let market players work things out here, even as messy as the current dispute over the TWC iPad app has become.

As Time Warner Cable argued in a March 30 FCC filing describing a meeting with commission staff: “We explained TWC’s strong interest in ensuring that its subscribers can access video programming on any device, including not only televisions but PCs, tablets, and smart phones.”

In other words: We don’t need additional rules to “help” the market along.

When you consider that, for example, Netflix is already streaming to 200-plus devices, it seems clear the private sector can move faster to get “video everywhere” on its own than any regulatory fiat would.

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