Cable Calls for Off-Air Encryption


Time Warner Inc. is seeking federal approval to scramble off-air digital signals over its cable systems in an effort it claims would better protect local-TV stations' content from rampant Internet piracy.

Federal Communications Commission rules bar cable operators from encrypting basic-tier broadcast signals. But Time Warner said in a Feb. 13 public filing that the chief rationale for the ban was inappropriate for off-air digital broadcast content.

In the filing, Time Warner said the scrambling ban was adopted a decade ago to ensure that consumers who purchased cable-ready TV sets did not need to lease or purchase a set-top box to view local TV signals on the basic tier.

Today, Time Warner said cable consumers recognize that in order to obtain digital services from cable companies, they require a set-top box or a cable-compatible DTV that has decryption capabilities.

“Thus, unlike the analog context, digital cable subscribers lack the expectation and ability to receive digital cable services without some form of operator-supplied decryption capability — even in circumstances where they purchase a ‘cable-ready' [DTV set] at retail,” Time Warner said.

In a separate filing, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association endorsed Time Warner's proposal. The Motion Picture Association of America, of which Time Warner-owned studio Warner Bros. is a member — said the FCC should mandate scrambling rather than make it optional.

Time Warner's request came in connection with further FCC implementation of agency broadcast flag rules adopted last year. The rules, which take effect in 2005, are intended to ensure that broadcast content does not easily migrate to the Internet for bulk retransmission.