FCC Wants Cable To Adopt Open-Standard 'Gateway' Device To Replace Set-Tops In 2012

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The Federal Communications Commission wants the cable industry to adopt an open-standard, "gateway" device to replace current set-tops by the end of 2012, and in the meantime make a number of fixes to its CableCARD regime by next fall.

That is according to a copy of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, to be officially unveiled Tuesday. The cable industry has warned against a one-size-fits-all approach to set tops.

The FCC wants the new "gateway" -- which would be a reqruiement for all MVPDs -- to be a standard interface that "bridges" conditional access, tuning and reception functions, period, with no additional functionality.

The commission says it should be cheap and allow consumer electronics companies to sell network-neutral devices that can access content independent of any particular MVPD or third party, allowing those consumer electronics companies to design to a common interface, and to open standards. The device will also need to pass through content protection flags from cable operators.

The agency is proposing interim milestones to make sure operators were gearing up for the switch, and penalties for those who are not installing the gateways in all new homes, or all box replacements, by Dec. 31, 2012.

In the meantime, the plan features rules that require the cable industry to take steps to make the CableCARD devices more consumer-friendly. Those include: 1) ensuring equal access to channels by leased and retail boxes; 2) transparent pricing for leased boxes, which means a separate, itemized charge and comparable discount if they buy a retail box; 3) standard installation policies for both retail and leased CableCARD devices; and 4) accelerating the certification process for CableCARD devices.

The FCC has attempted to spur a market in retail boxes by mandating that the industry unbundle the channel-security functions from the channel-surfing functions in the boxes, but there were numerous obstacles, which the above-proposals are intended to fix.

The plan aspires to connect 100 million households to 100 Mbps broadband downstream and 50 Mbps upstream by 2020, and to make affordable broadband available to everyone via the moving of numerous government levers.

It is also looking at pilot projects for government-funded free or low-cost broadband service along the lines of the Lifeline and Linkup subsidies for telephone service.

Among the other highlights are reform of the migration of the Universal Service Fund to broadband, including by big changes to intercarrier compensation; freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum by 2020, and 300 MHz by 2015, with 120 MHz of that coming from broadcasters.

The commission also plans to establish broadband technical performance standards and institute a rulemaking on disclosure of performance for broadband providers.

The FCC is proposing that it get together with the Federal Trade Commission to develop joint privacy principles that require "informed consent" before broadband service providers share some kinds of data with third parties.

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