Boucher Backs FCC Set-Top Box Effort


House Communications Subcommittee chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said Thursday April 29 that the ability to have plug-and-play capability for set-top boxes remains an elusive goal, but one that an Federal Communications Commission-proposed gateway box could solve.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said that while his group is skeptical of government technology mandates, he is willing to work with content owners and manufacturers on a gateway device that unites content streams and is interchangeable among providers.

That came in a hearing Thursday on spurring a retail market for set-top boxes.

Boucher said that he was pleased that the FCC had proposed such a gateway device be implemented by 2012 (as part of the commission's national broadband plan). The Congressman also said a workable CableCARD regime could help drive a competitive marketplace. That regime, he said, is now riddled with problems. "Revised CableCARD rules are needed for the near term," he said.

The FCC wants to spur the development of a retail set-top box market as well as promote broadband adoption via the TV set--there are sets in 99% of homes, while computers in only 75%-80% of homes.

The Commission has also proposed changes to its CableCARD rules separating the channel-surfing and security functions of set-tops to drive a retail market. By all accounts, that effort has not met with success.

Ranking Republican member Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said a one-size-fits-all gateway proposal is not likely to fare any better than the FCC's earlier efforts.

He said making the government into a gateway is micromanagement and even a "veiled attempt" to further network neutrality."

"I'm still trying out to figure out the problem," said John Shimkus (R-Ill.). "Every time we try to intervene and push a service on the public, we fail. We have video on watches, on phones, over copper, and cable and fiber and over satellite. We ought to be focused on getting high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved areas. That is where our focus should be. Let the competitive marketplace meet public demand."

Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) who represents Silicon Valley, not surprisingly saw it quite differently. She said that the cable industry did step up to the plate to create the CableCARD to follow up on the FCC's order to separate channel security and surfing, but suggested the effort had struck out.

She pointed out that the committee had not dealt with the issue in years, and said it was "important to revisit it."

The issue generally divided along political lines, with Republicans raising red flags on a government-imposed gateway and Democrats flashing green lights for choice and retail competition.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said the set-top is "the box that time forgot" but that that "is about to change." He said that, after 14 years, it is time to give more choice to consumers and spur adoption.

Sony executive Michael Williams was all for the gateway device, saying it would provide "true, robust competition," and that the result would be more choice and lower prices. He said Congress and the FCC need to be involved so there can be a single, nationwide standard among cable and satellite operators. He said the standard, calling it TV 3.0, for the device should be open, and without licensing obligations.

McSlarrow said he was "very supportive" of the FCC's efforts. He agreed the set-top box marektplace had not flourished for a couple of reasons. CableCARDS were one-way devices in an increasingly two-way world and second, they only work with cable service.

He also said there were a number of unanswered questions, which is why the gateway proposal is an inquiry--rather than a rulemaking.

McSlarrow said consumers should be able to connect devices without a set-top, and they should be moveable from one provider to another, that they should be able to access Internet video and search for that video across platforms. But he said the caution he has was NCTA's skepticism of government mandates. But he committed to being at the table to achieve these goals.

There should be an interface, he said, but he wasn't sure a gateway device was there yet.

There remained content protection and other issues, he said, but if there is a will for all providers, content owners and consumer electronics manufacturers, he said he thought such a device was achievable.

McSlarrow clarified that he was not for a mandate, but was willing to explore the gateway concept. Eshoo said that she saw it as standards, not a government mandate. But she also praised McSlarrow for cable's efforts in seeking a gateway solution. He said the world will be two-way, and integrated, and cable was committed to doing both.