FCC looks to shuffle the video navigation deck from CableCARD to AllVid

In recent years, the number of new avenues to connect to the Internet for video programming has grown exponentially. Driving this, of course, is the availability of more and more video-based distribution services out there that will deliver video to the comfort and privacy of your living room. While folks previously watched YouTube only on their computers, recent technological developments have given us internet-accessible DVRs, Blue-Ray disc players, and gaming devices such as Wii and PlayStation that can access and deliver video programming from Netflix, Pandora, and Hulu. Even televisions themselves are being manufactured to access the internet and relay programming to the home viewer.

In this atmosphere of rapid growth, the Commission recently released two notices relating to set-top boxes and their progeny. The basis for the Commission’s interest in this area is the requirement contained in Section 629 of the Communications Act, which gave the Commission authority to develop rules to spur the development of devices used for multichannel video program distribution (MVPD). The over-arching goal was the creation of a free, open and competitive market for video connection devices similar to that which developed for CPE (“customer-provided equipment” or “customer premises equipment”) when the telephone network was thrown open to non-Bell devices.

The first notice, the Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, seeks to update the CableCARD rules and policies. The CableCARD is a device that, once installed into retail devices such as television or retail navigational devices (think TiVo), eliminates the need for a separate set-top box.   Section 629 was part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and it took seven years for the industry (MVPDs and manufacturers) to develop a standard for the device. However, the standard adopted in 2003 did not address two-way communications such as Video on Demand, and the device requires professional installation.

In the National Broadband Plan, the Commission indicated that it would examine whether there should be changes to the existing rules to encourage the greater use of CableCARD devices.   In particular, the Commission is seeking comment on rules that would: (i) ensure that devices are able to access multi-stream video programming; (ii) make the pricing, billing and installation practices of CableCARD equipment transparent and similar to those for leased set-top boxes with the CableCARD already installed; and (iii) encourage the rapid development of new retail CableCARD devices.

While the Commission recognizes that the CableCARD regime is somewhat outdated, it seeks to make these changes to its rules as an interim measure while it implements what it believes to be the next generation of devices, namely, the AllVid device. The second notice, a Notice of Inquiry, is intended to jumpstart the quest for such a device. The AllVid approach, still merely a “concept” developed by the Commission in the National Broadband Plan, would serve as a gateway between consumer premises equipment such as DVRs, computers, and televisions on one side, and the proprietary systems of MVPDs on the other side. While the Commission acknowledges that such a “gateway” device is in concept form only, it believes that the adoption of this concept would lead to a nationwide interoperability standard like Ethernet and the standard phone-jack of yesteryear.

Under the AllVid concept, MVPD’s would be able to deliver their services directly to a small device, which would connect to the navigational devices such as computers, DVRs, televisions, and gaming systems. The MVPD would not have the headaches of working with individual device manufacturers, and the Commission believes that this concept will spur development of a retail market for new devices without the need for the manufacturers to deal with the MVPDs. Just as fax machines and answering machines could perform different services so long as they could be plugged into the standard RJ-11 phone jack, the Commission believes that AllVid devices will free up parties on either end of the gateway device to develop new and innovative methods for delivering service to consumers.

The Commission envisions that this device could be installed either on the back-end of a television, or as a device to which multiple devices would be attached. But, as with most “concepts”, the Commission is seeking comment on almost all elements of how this device will operate, including communications protocols, content protection requirements, and whether the consumer market demands that these devices should be developed by the Commission. One potentially sticky aspect of the proposal is that the Commission envisions that there would be a uniform channel guide and navigational features across all devices. While the Commission notes that there is an inherent conflict between standardization and innovation, it does appear to favor a standardized user interface that would improve customer service and ease of use.

Since this proceeding is at the Notice of Inquiry stage, there is very little meat on the proposals offered by the Commission. Instead, much like the National Broadband Plan, the Commission has teed up the subject matter, and is interested in receiving comments on all aspects of the proposal. On the other hand, combined with the adoption of the Notice in the CableCARD proceeding, it is clear that the Commission believes both that (a) the MVPDs and manufacturers have not fully met the goals set forth in Section 629 of the Communications Act, and (b) some sort of Commission-directed nudge is necessary.

Whether or not the final result is the adoption of the equivalent of the MVPD phone-jack is unknown, but we will keep you up-to-date as the proceedings move forward.