The FCC-appointed Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) provided multiple, possible paths to a post-CableCARD world, and, like its report, the responses that poured into the Commission docket on the matter were similarly divisive.
The DSTAC report included an apps-based proposal approach favored by cable operators and another AllVid-style approach, favored by companies such as Google, that discuss the implementation of a “virtual headend” and a government-specified gateway device capable of uniting video from various sources. It also covers an apps-based approach that would support competitive UIs.
The formation of the DSTAC in January followed the passing of the STELAR Act, legislation that will sunset the current set-top security integration ban in December 2015 and called on the FCC to take a look at a successor approach to the CableCARD that could spur the retail market for video navigation devices for not just cable operators, but other MVPDs.
The FCC Media Bureau recently sought comments on the final DSTAC report, which came rolling in under the October 8 deadline. Reply comments are due Nov. 9, 2015.
The FCC has not announced if it would follow with a larger Notice of Inquiry or a full Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the matter. However, it does have plenty of arguments to weigh on each side – whether to stay its hand, or pursue a new mandate that would establish a successor to the original, cable-focused integrated set-top security ban that took effect in July 2007…and failed, quite miserably, to create a vibrant retail market for set-tops (at last count, the top nine incumbent U.S. cable operators had deployed about 53 million CableCARDs in MSO-supplied set-tops, compared to a comparatively paltry 617,000 in retail devices).
As reported yesterday, NCTA reiterated its view that the FCC reject calls to create new technology mandate, noting that the “apps revolution” has brought pay TV services to twice as many consumer video devices as there are set-top boxes currently in use. It also labeled the AllVid concept as “pure vaporware,” and warned against the pitfalls of allowing a system that disaggregates pay TV services.
Here’s a summary of several (but not all) comments submitted this round:
Google is squarely in the AllVid/virtual headend camp.
In its comments, Google noted that it had to develop its own set-top equipment for video services provided by Google Fiber, and that “[u]nlike most set-top equipment, the Google Fiber devices and interfaces allow subscribers easily to switch between Google Fiber’s linear programming channels and online video options like VUDU, YouTube, and a Netflix account…The Commission should commence a rulemaking to ensure that all consumers enjoy these sorts of options.”
The app-based approach with operator-provided UI, Google said, would not assure a competitive retail market for navigation devices and that it would “lock consumers into having their video consumption experience framed and controlled entirely by the MVPD,” leaving little to no room for customization or innovation by third parties.
Like the NCTA and its other cable industry constituents, Comcast favors the apps-based proposal, calling AllVid a “warmed over” and “flawed and unnecessary technology mandate” that “exceeds the Commission’s authority” and would go beyond Congress’s mandate in STELAR.
Comcast argued that AllVid would increase security risks, extend unnecessary costs to consumers, eat more power. Additionally, the MSO argued, it would require MVPDs to redesign their networks and break apart their services in a way that would let CE manufacturers “repackage with their own user interfaces, effectively turning MVPDs into wholesale content suppliers to these manufacturers (but without contractual privity or protections) and develop an undefined, new piece of on-premises equipment that customers would have to rent to enable access to MVPD service on an AllVid-compatible CE device.”
As for apps, Comcast said its Xfinity TV Go App, which today provides about 80 live channels and more than 22,000 VOD choices, has been downloaded more than 17.9 million times, an increase of 60% over the past seven months. Comcast also said Xfinity apps also provide Title VI protections (such as Emergency Alert Systems, closed captioning and consumer privacy protections).
Comcast also brought up its support of the Digital Living Network Alliance’s VidiPath initiative (subscription required), which lets MVPDs stream their services securely over the home network to other VidiPath-compatible, customer-owned devices through a downloaded MVPD app.
Update: Comcast also noted that it is developing an HTML5-based app with Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), which, it said, “would enable access to Xfinity service on compatible device platforms without the need for building customized native apps for every device platform.”
That approach, Comcast said, would help Comcast deliver services to smart TVs, retail set-tops and other TV-connected devices, which today “currently operate in much more fragmented markets using different operating systems.” Comcast added that it’s also working towards supporting HTML5 with EME on its X1 platform, which will allow X1-capable set-top boxes will be able to support a wider range of third-party apps.
TiVo reiterated that it’s a “longtime advocate for a replacement of the CableCARD standard with solutions that better reflect today’s marketplace and technology” and argued the FCC to build on the committees report and initiate a rulemaking.
TiVo noted that its new Bolt product, which supports pay TV, OTA and OTT video services, demonstrates the kind of innovation that the retail device market has brought to bear with the CableCARD, despite its “often cumbersome” installation process and historic issues with MVPD support for it.
“The availability of non-proprietary nationwide security solutions free cable operators to purchase set-top boxes from a variety of suppliers, rather than being locked in to purchasing set-top boxes from a single conditional access vendor,” TiVo argued.
And without a successor system, “smaller operators will again be locked into a single supplier of conditional access solutions on a system-by-system basis as they were prior to CableCARD,” TiVo said.
The company also argued that the apps-based approach, while “are no doubt welcome to consumers…do not measure up to the type of retail competition mandated by Section 629.”
EchoStar, the set-top and technology unit with corporate ties to Dish Network, said it “generally supports the conclusions set forth in the DSTAC Summary Report,” but warned that if the FCC decides to move forward it “must not oversimplify this complex technological and service delivery ecosystem, as doing so would likely lead to a regime that does not adequately reflect and protect the legitimate interests of all affected parties.”
EchoStar also highlighted that the pay TV industry is made up of one-way systems (like satellite TV) and two-way systems, and that the technical diversity of the industry will make it difficult to come up with a “one size fits all” approach.
The maker of IPTV security for various types of providers said it has “solved the security aspects” that are similar to the problem presented to the DSTAC, noting that its platform supports multiple DRMs using downloadable software, but that it “does not favor forced standardization by government mandate at this level.”
“However, certain discrete elements and interfaces within an MVPDs security system can be standardized on a go-forward basis that would be helpful to competition and innovation without undue harm to security,” the company said. “We have these interfaces clearly identified in our solutions and are working on voluntary standardization of them in various fora. We will highlight these possible areas of standardization herein, but we do not propose that the FCC mandate them.”
Hauppauge Computer Works
Hauppauge advocates the pursuit of competitive interfaces and the virtual headend proposal and urged the FCC to move ahead on new rules.
“Apps are good, but you need to read the fine print,” it said, noting that there needs to be an API open to developers. Operator-provided UIs, the company added, are proprietary and can only be developed by select individuals and run on select TV systems.”
The group is in favor of the virtual headend proposal, and wants the FCC to take action and pursue a new rulemaking.
“After years of inaction, the Commission now has the chance to finally fulfil its statutory duty of promoting a competitive market for video navigation devices,” PK said. “The Commission should take that opportunity, and building on the DSTAC report’s ‘virtual head-end’ proposal, move quickly to a rulemaking proceeding that formalizes a new standard allowing differentiated devices to access and display MVPD content.”
PK held that the app proposal “would be a step back from the existing CableCARD system.”
Further, it isn’t buying cable’s disaggregation argument, holding that Congress envisioned that navigation could be separated by a different entity than the MVPD’s linear video offering.
“What the MVPDs characterize as ‘disaggregation’ is in fact the approach most consistent with Congressional intent and the statutory scheme, which is why it is the approach already taken by the CableCARD system, which cable operators claim to support.”
American Cable Association
The group, which represents independent cable operators, urged the FCC to proceed with “great caution” before putting forth any new technology mandates. And the ACA argued against the AllVid approach and in favor of the apps-based proposal.
“To ensure the continued availability of MVPD service and to avoid the significant costs that MVPDs would incur to comply with unnecessary technical mandates, the Commission must eschew the Device Proposal and permit MVPDs to continue with the flexible, pro-competitive approach that has been developed in the market and is embodied in the App Proposal.”
“For traditional cable operators who have many navigation devices in the field capable only of receiving QAM signals, the transition to IP delivery necessarily will occur over a period of years,” the ACA said. “Market forces will determine the precise pace of the transition so that small cable operators can afford to make the transition in an orderly, non-disruptive, and non-economically burdensome manner.”
The device-based approach would require “millions of dollars of network upgrades in a short span of time.”
Any government-mandated solution “should be made available to third-party device manufacturers on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms” and enable consumers to access “the full array of MVPD services for which they have subscribed,” Sony Electronics said in its comments. “It should not enable MVPDs to choose winners and losers among device manufacturers, and it should not enable device manufacturers to pick winners and losers among MVPDs.”
Amazon said the DSTAC report agreed that downloadable content security is achievable, but that control over navigation devices’ user interfaces ““is a question of policy, not content security.”
“Although important to competition and improved user experiences, the question of which party controls a device’s UI falls outside of the scope of content security, as the DSTAC members agree,” Amazon noted.
Arris, a top maker of set-tops that’s trying to acquire U.K.-based Pace plc, said it supports the apps-based proposal.
“As detailed in the DSTAC Report, the apps-based approach is built on a track record of marketplace success in enabling consumer access to a widening array of connected devices,” Arris said. “In contrast, an AllVid-type approach would be unduly burdensome on MVPDs and their customers and should be avoided.”
The Consumers Union argued that consumers “have no practical alternatives to renting set-top boxes that can access MVPD content…The time is ripe for the Commission to develop a universally relied upon standard that ensures that design and licensing of technology is not controlled only by a few special interests.”
Nagra told the FCC that the focus should be on security and, more precisely, on “downloadable security technology,” rather than “higher-layer and other functions which are ancillary to security.”
“We believe that solving the navigation, guide and meta-data problems will largely be solved as part of a well-reasoned security solution,” Nagra said. “We caution the Commission that attempting to comingle navigation issues with security issues yields a much more complicated discussion, and unnecessarily complicates the underlying (and significant) security challenges.”
Comptel, which represents wireline and wireless providers in the broadband marketplace, said the development of online video distributor options “is good for consumers, for video competition, and for broadband deployment and adoption.”
But as long as incumbent cable operators control the development and distribution of set-top boxes, “they can deter consumers from accessing independent content over their set-top boxes and televisions,” it said, concluding that the FCC should move ahead with a rulemaking that will promote more retail competition for video navigation devices.
The Motion Picture Association of America
The Motion Picture Association of America (members include Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Paramount Pictures Corp., Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Universal City Studios LLC, and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.) said its committed to providing content “through a wide variety of platforms and distributors.”
But when push comes to shove, the app-based proposal “will meet those goals.”
“By leveraging the strength of downloadable applications, this approach will offer device manufacturers a variety of ways to access video, as well as enable them to innovate and differentiate their equipment, without interfering with licensing agreements,” the MPAA said.
As for the competitive navigation proposal, it “makes no commitment to abide by content providers’ licensing terms,” the group said. “Third-parties could potentially seek to disassemble the programming, features, and functions offered over distribution services and selectively reassemble some of them for their own commercial exploitation. This could interfere with contracts, upset copyright law, and run afoul of the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”
That approach would likewise “impose significant costs, require the restructuring of networks, and necessitate standards yet to be developed. Thus, it fails the DSTAC’s charge to avoid solutions that are unduly burdensome.”
Like other MVPDs, AT&T/DirecTV favors the apps-based proposal, holding that the alternative “would take the Commission beyond its statutory authority by exceeding the ‘device’ competition addressed by Section 629 of the Act and venturing into ‘service’ competition, which is not so addressed.”
They also feared that AllVid would deprive customers of the features and functionalities that customers expect from their MVPD service and pay for and “[blur] the lines of responsibility for addressing service problems and questions.”
DirecTV, the filing noted, uses RVU technology (which is similar in some ways to VidiPath) to provide a remote user interface to multiple televisions or other RVU-compliant retail devices, eliminating the need for additional set-top boxes in each room.
“Dumbing down MVPD services and stripping out their features – which the Device Proposal or other similar governmental technology mandate would do — is exactly the wrong approach in a marketplace where consumers already ubiquitously access MVPD and OVD content on a wide and growing array of retail devices,” they said.
“The Commission should not (and need not) create a new system from scratch,” it said. “VidiPath is an existing solution that is proven and being deployed to market by a number of MVPDs.”