Four months after adopting them, the FCC is already clarifying its CableCARD rules

Remember last October, when the Commission hustled through a rulemaking aimed at encouraging the use of consumer-owned “CableCARD” devices for accessing MVPD services? The FCC has decided that the rules it adopted less than four months ago could already use some tweaking. The tweaks, contained in a terse “Order on Reconsideration” issued sua sponte (translation: on the FCC’s own motion), appear designed to correct some looseness in the regulatory language.

For example, the original Order’s requirement that cable operators provide access to bandwidth-efficient “switched digital video” (SDV) programming could be read to apply not just to cable operators and devices subject to the CableCARD rules, but to ALL cable operators and ALL set-top boxes. Since the FCC didn’t intend the rule to be that sweeping, the text has been tightened up.

A similar fate befell the rule preventing MVPD operators from subsidizing the cost of operator-provided set-top boxes through the imposition of service fees on subscribers who own their own boxes. As originally written, the rule appeared to protect any subscriber who happened to own a set-top box of any kind, even if that box was not going to be used to access the MVPD’s programming. The rule has now been clarified to specify that the anti-subsidization provision applies only if the subscriber-owned box is used in lieu of operator-provided gear.

In a slightly different vein, after further reflection the FCC found that the rules announced last October refer at times to technical testing standards that aren’t the latest and the greatest. The rules also were inconsistent when it came to the facilities qualified to certify the devices. The inconsistency has now been eliminated, and the language massaged to assure the use of the most recent standards in developing new products. 

Finally, the new order tweaked the prior exemption of “one-way” set-top boxes provided by cable operators from the general prohibition on integrated security and Internet Protocol (IP) interface elements. The whole point of the CableCARD system is to separate out the set-top box’s security functions from its navigation functions, so that third party devices can provide navigation and other functions without compromising the security of the cable system. To give subscribers a lower cost option, however, the FCC exempted less advanced “one-way” set-top boxes (i.e., devices without advanced “two-way” features like digital video recording or Internet accessibility) from the separation requirement. The FCC reasoned that this limited exemption would not affect the competitive market, which will presumably focus on advanced “two way” functions. 

The FCC’s new order clarifies that cable-provided set-top boxes with integrated security can include an IP interface, but only if that interface is not used to access cable operator-provided on-demand or digital video recorder services. The restriction does not preclude a subscriber from using a cable-provided IP connection to connect to a retail recording device.

While none of these revisions is particularly groundbreaking, the removal of any regulatory uncertainty is always welcome. Ideally, the Commission’s increased precision will encourage more widespread adoption of advanced devices. We continue to live in hope (but still rent our set-top boxes).