FCC Grants DTA Waivers To Four Vendors

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The Federal Communications Commission has cleared the way for cable operators to deploy low-cost, limited-function digital set-tops with integrated security from Motorola, Cisco Systems, Pace and Thomson.

The agency's Media Bureau, in an order adopted and released Monday, Aug. 24, said operators may use the vendors' digital transport adapters, or DTAs, with embedded conditional access in a three-year exemption to the FCC rule prohibiting the use of set-tops with integrated security functions.

A copy of the order is available here.

The ruling comes after the FCC in late May granted Evolution Broadband a waiver for two limited-function DTAs. In that order, the FCC said it would consider requests for similar devices from competing vendors, leading Motorola, Cisco, Pace and Thomson to submit their waiver petitions in June.

DTAs, which are designed to cost less than $50 each, provide one-way access to digital cable programming and convert it into analog format. To qualify for a waiver, they lack advanced functions, such as digital video recording.

The FCC "concluded that such devices will serve the public interest by furthering cable operators' migrations to all-digital networks... and would not jeopardize the development of the competitive marketplace for navigation devices" from consumer-electronics companies, the Media Bureau said in the Aug. 24 ruling.

Comcast, for one, has been widely deploying DTAs throughout 2009 in an initiative code-named Project Cavalry to free up analog spectrum in cable systems across much of its footprint. But so far, the MSO has been using Motorola, Pace and Thomson devices that do not have security functions enabled.

In 2007, the Media Bureau denied Comcast's request for a waiver on three limited-function set-tops. The MSO's appeal of that decision was turned down last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The units covered under the Media Bureau's Aug. 24 order are: Cisco's DTA 70, which works only in Cisco systems, and the DTA 30 and DTA 50, which work in both Motorola and Cisco systems; Motorola's DTA-100, which works in Motorola systems, and the DTA-100u, compatible with either Motorola or Cisco security; Pace's DC50X and DC50Xu DTAs; and Thomson's DCI104 and DCI105 devices.

The American Cable Association commended the commission for granting the new round of set-top box waivers, which the organization said will make it far less expensive for customers of small cable operators to watch digital television and more cost-effective for said providers to reclaim analog bandwidth, which, in turn, can be used for other advanced services.

"The ACA is pleased that the FCC is adopting policies that will allow small, independent cable providers to deploy low-cost digital set-top boxes to their customers," said ACA president and CEO Matt Polka in a statement. "The FCC's approach lowers the cost to offer digital television service to consumers and helps ACA members transition to all-digital networks and utilize old analog bandwidth to provide more HDTV channels, faster broadband access speeds, and feature-rich digital phone service."

Six public interest groups, led by Public Knowledge, had opposed the DTA vendors' waiver requests, expressing concern that the devices under consideration "may well have the capability (after a simple software download) to provide more than ‘one-way, non-HD, non-DVR services.'" 

In response, the Media Bureau clarified in its order Monday that any modification that would enhance the features of the DTAs would "effectively make the subject boxes different devices" which would thus require separate waivers.

"We are disappointed that the Media Bureau granted the waivers for low-end set-top boxes, which lock in advantages the cable companies already have while offering consumers set-top boxes with fewer features than they might otherwise get in an open market," said Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn. "The larger issue is whether the Commission is doing what Congress required back in 1996, when the Telecom Act promised an open, competitive market for full-featured set-top boxes... It's that goal to which the Commission should aspire, rather than continually lowering the bar through the waiver process."

Among those backing the vendors' DTA waiver requests was The Walt Disney Co., which said DTAs "provide a public benefit by affording a means for all subscribers to cable services to enjoy the improved resolution and greater variety of digital programming networks being made available today by programmers like Disney."

Separately, Evolution has filed another waiver request with the FCC for its sub-$100 HD-capable DTA, arguing that high-definition programming does not amount to an advanced service that would be subject to the integrated set-top ban.

-- John Eggerton contributed to this article.

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