Eshoo Troubled by Cable’s Digital Plans

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Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) voiced concern Thursday that a new capacity-expanding cable technology would disable digital set-top boxes that rely on CableCARDs to unscramble content, frustrating attempts by Congress to allow consumers to shop at retail stores for channel-surfing devices.

“This is but one example of how content providers can limit the use of technology by creating artificial barriers to impede competition and innovation,” Eshoo said at a House subcommittee hearing on video-programming issues related to cable, the Internet and mobile devices.

Cable operators like Comcast and Time Warner Cable are rolling a technology called switched digital video, which sends programming to a viewer when requested. The SDV system is considered more efficient than the traditional broadcast method of sending dozens of channels all of the time to every subscribing household.

The problem with SDV is that it is a two-way technology while the preponderance of CableCARD-enabled devices -- including set-top boxes, digital-cable-ready TVs and new recording devices from TiVo -- are one-way only. CableCARDs, small and shaped liked a credit card, slide into set-tops to unlock programming.

“Our new boxes are all going to be CableCARD-based,” TiVo CEO Thomas Rogers testified before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet after Eshoo spoke. “CableCARDs could be rendered useless.”

Starting July 1, cable operators without waivers from the Federal Communications Commission are required to rely on CableCARD-enabled digital set-top boxes when fulfilling new orders. The FCC is hoping that a ban on integrated boxes -- units that internally house both channel-selection and program-scrambling technology -- will spur retail availability of set-top boxes.

Eshoo said SDV, by not working with CableCARDs, would frustrate the FCC’s effort.

“I am concerned that despite the implementation of this mandate, many cable operators will either hobble or render competitive set-top boxes unusable by deploying new channel-switching technology that won’t work with other boxes,” she added.

Although he agreed, Rogers said cable operators have assured him of their cooperation.

“There is good news. We have pointed out this problem to the cable industry. To their great credit, they have said, 'We want to work this out, we want to work this through, consumers should be able to get this kind of expectation that CableCARDs and new technologies like this will work, and we are hopeful that it will be solved,'” he said.

Rogers added that he remained concerned that cable operators do not have a sufficient supply of CableCARDs and that they tend to require consumers to schedule installation visits when CableCARDs can be mailed and easily installed by the consumer.

A National Cable & Telecommunications Association official confirmed that the industry wanted to resolve TiVo’s compatibility issues.

“Cable is working with TiVo and others to try to develop a technical fix so that one-way devices will be able to access the inherently two-way switched-digital-video signals,” the NCTA official said.

TiVo’s Series3 box can’t receive cable-fed SDV signals, a TiVo official said in an e-mail response to a report seeking information about TiVo’s reliance on CableCARD technology.

The Series3 unit, which relies on two CableCARDs, also has two cable tuners and two turners to capture over-the-air digital broadcasts. It can store and display HD content and download from the Internet movies supplied by the Amazon Unbox service.

If cable operators fail to make SDV compatible with CableCARDs, “It creates a potential black eye for the FCC, for this subcommittee, for NCTA, for TiVo and for other consumer -lectronics companies,” Rogers said.

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