FCC to Stay Set-Top Rules 45 Days


Washington-Facing a growing number of waiver requests under a tight deadline, the Federal Communications Commission last Friday decided to freeze its competitive set-top-box rules for 45 days, but only for those MSOs that have already made filings saying they can't comply.

In an action taken by FCC Cable Services Bureau chief Deborah Lathen, the commission moved just one day before its rules designed to promote the competitive availability of set-tops were to take effect. Congress mandated adoption of the rules in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The July 1 deadline was established in 1998 when the FCC, hoping to drive consumers into retail outlets such as Circuit City Stores Inc., ordered cable operators to separate signal-security functions from channel-surfing functions and ordered cable operators to stop deploying integrated set-tops in 2005.

On cable systems in compliance with FCC rules, a cable subscriber who purchases a set-top box at retail should be able to unscramble analog and digital programming with a digital point-of-deployment module inserted into the box.

The FCC rules do not apply to analog boxes, but they do apply to analog-digital hybrid boxes-the units being widely deployed by MSOs today.

Nine cable operators have filed for FCC waivers. The first five to reach the FCC's doorstep covered about 200,000 digital subscribers and some 2.3 million basic subscribers.

The MSOs said the waivers were necessary mainly because they do not have the channel capacity to duplicate scrambled analog programming in digital for unscrambling by a digital POD-the only kind of POD that is being made.

Although the cable industry is widely complying with FCC rules, Circuit City is not expected to have competitive boxes on its shelves anytime soon. FCC rules did not set a deadline for retailers to begin stocking set-tops.

Meanwhile, Cable Television Laboratories Inc. said last week that its OpenCable Review Board verified the interoperability of PODs from Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. CableLabs said it expects the PODs to be made available immediately to cable operators.

CableLabs said that with the testing completed, its initial work on digital-POD modules was finished.