CABLE, CEA Agree to Disagree

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Here’s one thing that almost certainly won’t happen this holiday season: A gift exchange between the cable and consumer-electronics industries.

Both industries filed individual batches of documents to the Federal Communications Commission on Nov. 30. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two sides didn’t find much to agree about.

Partly, the filings were routine. The FCC gets regular updates from both sides, every few months, about how things are going with the task to embed set-top functions into two-way digital devices.

Most significantly, the submissions — from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Consumer Electronics Association — reflect an October request from the FCC about how to swiftly regulate those devices into reality.

At the end, the NCTA submitted detailed proposed regulations, based on existing matter, presumably so the FCC could solicit comments, then act. The CE side, by contrast, submitted proposed regulations that consisted mostly of empty brackets, for standards they concede don’t yet exist in completed form.

All in, the comments to the Commission ran across 114 pages. If you’re into reading FCC filings, they’re fairly spicy — and not just because the Consumer Electronics Association has a real knack for clever whining.

They’re tasty because they describe the chasm between the two sides with detail-rich gusto.

It’s been three years — yes, three years — since the work between the two sides began on two-way “plug-and-play” devices. For anyone attempting to follow the progress, the filings answer many lingering questions.

If you’re not into reading FCC filings, this translation will serve as a reader’s guide to the more important parts.

CABLE’S PERSPECTIVE

If tone of voice can be picked up through a regulatory document, cable’s sounds like exasperated patience.

Yes, things have changed since 1996, when the FCC ruled that security must be separable from set-tops. And no, adding two-way connectivity to a digital device isn’t the same as making the cable plant a free ride for anyone with a new service idea. Tasty text from the filing: “Without an assurance that services will be rendered as intended by the cable operator and as expected by the customer, cable operators will be handicapped as they compete through service quality and service innovations with other facilities-based providers (e.g., direct-broadcast satellite, telephone companies, information technology), who may claim the right to use proprietary boxes and be in full control of such network characteristics.”

Harrumph.

Cable asked for regulations that parallel the known, promulgated, and interoperability-tested standards and licenses that tend to swirl around this topic: CHILA (Cable Host Interface Licensing agreement) and OCAP (OpenCable Applications Platform).

CHILA is the “hardware part” of the equation. OCAP is a middle layer of software that makes services portable across different digital devices, in different MSO geographies.

The industry served up an October 2006 start date for OCAP launches, with full national availability in three years. That’s a huge milestone for OCAP, because it makes it real.

On the matter of downloadable security, cable offered a live demo and a promise of July 1, 2008 for national availability. That’s a year later than the FCC’s third deadline extension on the matter of CableCards embedded into leased set-tops, so it’s a date to watch as the FCC makes its determinations.

CEA’S PERSPECTIVE

As expected, the CEA took big issue with cable’s position, saying that cable “starkly limits” innovation, and that the FCC should start its policy work by addressing “the scope of cable operator control over 'cable service’ and product design.”

The fight here is over shared resources, and that swell, fast path connecting consumer devices to other stuff. CE wants to offer its own services — think electronic program guide here — over the two-way path. They want to remove cable’s right to define cable services, so that they can reconfigure those services.

Tactically, CE wants access to the embedded cable modem, both for software patches and new services. And it views the regulatory angle on “services” as the prevention of service theft, not the prevention of alternative service delivery.

In other words, CE wants cable to be the pipe, just the pipe, nothing else.

This mutual cantankerousness between the two sides is anything but new, by the way. A dozen years ago, I was researching a piece about the pre-digital version of this same struggle, between the same two industries. One of the engineers involved, then in his 50s, let out this classic quip: “We were all young men when this started.”

He has since retired.

Stumped by jibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at www.translation-please.com.

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