Reader's Guide To FCC Plug & Play Verbiage


A time-consuming truth about how to interpret regulatory language is the need to really read it, beginning to end, to best absorb the cadence and gestalt of the situation.

The same is true of technical specifications.

Reading, versus skimming, is like learning a foreign language by physically moving into a house that speaks only that language, versus learning a foreign language from cracking a textbook on alternating Tuesday evenings.

There's no shortage of "foreign language" in the Federal Communication Commission's recent Report and Order on plug-and-play devices, especially for those of us who aren't neck-deep in the situation — or who are knee-deep in several other pressing matters.

Only 85 Pages

This week's translations thus aim to serve as a sort of "reader's guide" to the more frequent terms seasoning the 85-page FCC proceeding. (This isn't so bad, as page counts go. The Digital Video Broadcast/Multimedia Home Platform, or "DVB-MHP" specification, is a stout 1,153 pages.)

First, a bit of context. The FCC ruling exists to mesh two complicated current events: The "digital transition," and a 1996 Congressional mandate to make things like set-tops available at stores. Essentially, it covers everything to do with keeping premium digital video channels safe from theft and copyrighted material safe from unauthorized duplication, in a world where set-tops don't only come from service providers. No easy feat.

The Easy Terms

One acronym appears over and over in the ruling: "MVPD." It's an easy one: Multichannel Video Programming Distributors," like cable and direct-broadcast satellite companies.

Another fairly easy one: "Unidirectional" digital cable receivers. "Uni" means single. One. Unicycle: One wheel. Unidirectional: One-way, from the signal collection point (headend) to the receiver (home).

("Unidirectional" gets you smart points if you're talking to an engineer. "One-way" gets you gratitude points if you're talking to anyone else.)

It follows that the "bi-" in "bidirectional" digital cable receivers means "two" or "both." Two ways: From headend to home, and back.

It's not so easy after that. Take "downresolution," for instance, which people tend to shorten and use as a verb: "Down-rez." To down-rez is to remove parts of a TV picture's information, which lessens its resolution. It's like trying to uncook a stew, remove a few ingredients, and still call it a stew.

More specifically, think of what it would take to reduce a HDTV picture into a standard-definition TV picture (equivalent to today's digital-cable services.) That's downresolution.

"Down-rez" usually swirls around discussions about copyright protection over analog connectors on digital TVs and set-tops. The thinking: If the quality of the picture is lessened, it's perhaps not as tempting to would-be thieves.

As for consumers who already own digital TVs with an analog spigot, "down-rez" means they'd at least have a picture, rather than a blank screen, if a copyright holder (studio) were to restrict its wares (hit movies) over an analog connector.

Like its position on selectable output controls (translated on Oct. 6), cable's stance is to abstain from down-resolution — as long as the DBS providers abstain, too.

The FCC said no to downresolution for broadcast, over-the-air programming. For movies or other types of digital video content, though, it wants more information about how best to proceed.

In the meantime, if cable or DBS providers want to do any down-rezing, they need to notify the FCC a month before they do it.

Multi-Stream PODS

Despite the work of cable's marketers to replace the creepy-sounding "POD" (for "point-of-deployment module") with "CableCARD," the FCC ruling nonetheless teems with PODs. And there's a new POD in the game: The "Multistream POD."

A "multistream POD" is all about the number of tuners in consumer devices. Think of digital video recorders, or DVRs. They started out with a single tuner, meaning that customers were prevented from watching one channel, while recording another. Adding a second tuner corrects that — but what if both tuners are parked on premium channels?

Right now, CableCARDs can handle one encrypted program at a time. The need to do more than one gave life to "multistream POD." Essentially, it's a CableCARD that can decrypt two or more digital video streams at a time. It's on the to-do list for the two-way portion of the cable/consumer electronics negotiations, which continue at a concentrated pace.

The 85-page FCC ruling also includes a "Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking," which roughly means "more stuff that needs reflection before rules can be developed."

More on that next time.

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