Microsoft Agrees to Set-Top Delay


Breaking ranks with industry allies, Microsoft Corp. is now supporting the delay of a July 2006 ban on integrated cable set-tops based in part on commitments by Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable to ensure the rollout of two-way plug-and-play digital-TV sets by the end of 2006.

The compromise was unveiled Wednesday in a conference call involving Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt and Microsoft chief technology officer Craig Mundie.

A letter with details about the call, to be filed with the FCC at some point, was obtained by Multichannel News. The three-page letter said Microsoft, after talks with Comcast and Time Warner Cable, would support a delay lasting between six and 18 months.

An FCC source was unsure whether Microsoft’s alliance with cable would be sufficient to prompt the agency to postpone the July 2006 deadline. Microsoft, the source said, once supported the ban on integrated cable set-tops.

Cable operators are resisting implementation of the ban, which would require all new cable boxes to function with the conditional-access device called a CableCARD. Cable claims that the ban would raise box costs without offsetting benefits for consumers.

The FCC letter said the agreement called on Comcast and Time Warner Cable to help develop downloadable conditional-access software that would function with digital-hardware products supported by cable operators, computer companies and consumer-electronics firms.

Because design of the software needs time, a ban delay is necessary, the letter said. It also said a delay would mean that cable did not have to devote resources toward CableCARD implementation.

The letter addressed what it called the creation of a “broad ecosystem” in which cable companies would show greater support for current one-way CableCARD devices, including development of “multistream” CableCARDs that allow consumers watching one channel to record a program on another using a third-party digital-video-recorder, such as a TiVo Inc. unit.

Microsoft's support for Comcast and Time Warner Cable comes after industry allies -- including Intel Corp. and PC firms that widely distribute Microsoft’s “Windows” operating system -- repeated demands that the FCC not alter the July 2006 deadline.

“The time has come to end consumers’ exclusive reliance on [set-top boxes] provided by their cable company. In fact, it’s long overdue,” Hewlett-Packard Co. executive vice president Shane Robinson said in a Feb. 17 letter to the FCC.