Powell: Give ’Em a Box Break

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell wants to give cable an extra year to terminate deployment of integrated set-top boxes, agency sources said last Wednesday.

Current FCC rules require cable MSOs to deploy only CableCARD-enabled boxes after July 2006, but the industry fought for an extension, claiming the agency’s policies would drive up set-top costs without providing subscribers with any new benefits.

The FCC rules are designed to promote a competitive navigation-device market. The agency ruled the best way to achieve that was by separating channel-surfing and conditional-access functions.

The CableCARD — which can be inserted into boxes and cable-ready DTV sets — performs the conditional-access function.

Consumer-electronics firms, major computer original-equipment manufacturers and TiVo Inc. pressed the FCC not to extend the July 2006 deadline, arguing that market conditions sought by the agency would fail to materialize if cable-deployed boxes did not include CableCARDs.

The chairman’s proposal has been circulated to the other four FCC members, but none of them has cast a vote, agency sources said.

Powell has attached some conditions to the extension, including reporting requirements on progress toward development of downloadable security and on implementation of cable-industry support for one-way digital-TV sets that function with CableCARDs. One source said agreement on these details and others has not been reached.

Digital video recorder maker TiVo, for instance, has asked the FCC to impose a Dec. 31, 2005, deadline that would require cable to support a unidirectional multistream CableCARD, which would allow its subscribers to record more than one program at a time.

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