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FCC May Pry Open the Cable Set-Top Box 222

awyeah writes "The NY Times reports that the FCC is finally looking into the practice of cable companies requiring use of their set-top boxes to access their digital cable and video on-demand services. The inquiry (PDF) states: 'Consumers can access the Internet using a variety of delivery methods (e.g., wireless, DSL, fiber optics, broadband over powerlines, satellite, and cable) on myriad devices made by hundreds of manufacturers; yet we know of no device available at retail that can access all of an MVPD's services across that MVPD's entire footprint.' Yes, there are a few devices out there — for example CableCARD-enabled TVs, and CableCARD/Tuning Adapter-enabled TiVos and Windows Media Center PCs, but only the cable companies' set-tops can access services other than broadcast TV, such as video-on-demand and pay-per-view. Is it finally time to open these devices and embrace actual standards and competition?" Lauren Weinstein has a cautionary blog post about the world we may be entering if this FCC initiative comes to fruition, which concludes: "I have difficulty seeing how this universe can be made to function effectively in the absence of some sort of regulatory regime to ensure transparency and fairness in situations where the Internet access providers themselves are providing their own content that directly competes with content from the external Internet."
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FCC May Pry Open the Cable Set-Top Box

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  • One idea (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:00PM (#30359636) Journal

    "I have difficulty seeing how this universe can be made to function effectively in the absence of some sort of regulatory regime to ensure transparency and fairness in situations where the Internet access providers themselves are providing their own content that directly competes with content from the external Internet."

    I see only one way that we, as consumers of content, will get a good outcome from this. And it's a messy one... We'd need to be able to have multiple content providers simultaneously. They'll competing on their service on shared content, and on the unique content they provide. It would end up being like TV before cable... you had the big networks in VHF, and a few fringe stations in UHF.

    I really don't think this is a feasible solution due to infrastructure requirements (unless the infrastructure is common), but I think it's the only way the [Internet access|Content providers] can be involved in fair competition that benefits the end-consumer.

    Say Microsoft enters into an agreement with Comcast, and Comcast starts delaying packets for google searches. Fine... not much harm done, since I could "change channels" and use another ISP.

  • Re:One idea (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sanosuke001 ( 640243 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:02PM (#30359654)
    split the content providers into two companies; one that owns the infrastructure and another that supplies the content. Then, require the infrastructure company to lease access to any company who wants it at the same price regardless of who is leasing the access.
  • Re:cablecard is dead (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MBCook ( 132727 ) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:15PM (#30359772) Homepage
    That's Cable's fault. Here is my cable card experience.
    • Get Cable Cards. Despite being plug-and-play, this required an appointment with a Cable idiot.
    • Pay extra per month for my CCs so I can use the service I already pay an ungodly amount of money for
    • Have a problem with channel or two. Call up to have them fix it. It requires a reset signal be sent, which only happens once there is a tech at my place.
    • Move out, get my own place. Need CCs transferred to new account. They can't do that. They come out to replace my two cards with two NEW cards, because they are idiots. Those cards don't work, so they give me my old cards back, just like I asked in the first place. This took TWO tech visits.
    • Have cards fail, get the replaced. This requires a tech. Comcast won't let me swap them myself.
    • For the time I don't have my service? They'll give me free VOD/PPV. But I can't use that, I have Cable Cards.

    That's the short version.

    By the way, my cards, which are basically PCMCIA cards, may need replacing again. You'd think they'd know how to build a solid-state device that doesn't move for two years without it dieing, but they don't.

    Cables has gone out of their way to make things as difficult as possible. I'm guessing 90% of people don't even know the things are available. And with the deficits Cable has put in place (like no PPV/VOD), I'm not surprised people aren't rushing out to use them. And they don't work with Switched-Digital-Video, so any day now I may lose the option to use them.

    It failed because the FCC didn't force things nearly hard enough. They let cable drag their feet WAY too long.

  • Re:cablecard is dead (Score:3, Interesting)

    by spectro ( 80839 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:27PM (#30359862) Homepage

    Not only late but obsolete. The cable industry resisted and killed cablecard so we all looked for a way to bypass them: the internet.

    Youtube proved the tech and bandwidth are there when they netcasted U2 live from the Rose Bowl to millions around the world.

    For $150 you can buy blueray players with plugins to play live streams from providers such as netflix.

    It is just a matter of months before cable channels start bypassing the cable industry and sell direct subscriptions to their live HD stream (is Mark Cuban reading this?)

    Better tell the FCC to find a better use for our tax money.

  • Re:cablecard is dead (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:32PM (#30359914)

    FCC should simply do as many other have requested - as a condition to move to SDV they *MUST* allow any provider to supply a data stream and be able to carry it to the customer. Just like the internet. Force the SDV network portion and content portion (PPV, etc) to split.

    You don't get to build out a high speed packet switched network that only you can use on the taxpayers dime. Forget it.

    The sooner we can stop treating digital video and voice as some magic special kind of data and just build flexible all-data networks the easier and saner the regulatory regime will become.

  • Re:One idea (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:43PM (#30359992)

    split the content providers into two companies; one that owns the infrastructure and another that supplies the content. Then, require the infrastructure company to lease access to any company who wants it at the same price regardless of who is leasing the access.

    That has been the historical solution. For example movie studios could not own movie theaters, airplane manufactures could not own airlines, etc except in very limited circumstances. Its only the gradual corruption of Congress by corporate money that allows conglomerates like Time Warner to both create and distribute content.

  • Obama (Score:3, Interesting)

    by WiiVault ( 1039946 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:48PM (#30360036)
    Say what you will about the man, but his FCC seems to have significantly more teeth than the last administration's. Between this, the Verizon ETF, and the Gvoice/Apple thing they seem to actually be doing their job.
  • Re:cablecard is dead (Score:2, Interesting)

    by TheOldBear ( 681288 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:49PM (#30360038)

    The old CableCard standard was one way only. The newer 'MCard' and the OCAP / Tru2Way boxes are much more capable, and [speaking from the inside of the cable industry] a bit puzzling to deal with.

    We are looking at revamping our entire provisioning infrastructure to permit the new generation boxes to function, but that has run into some comical snags. For example, we can't get a Pannasonic Tru2Way set delivered to our lab, because the distributor will only ship to areas served by a Tru2Way compatible cable provider. We're working on it, but we're not fully compatible.

  • Regulatory solution? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by earlymon ( 1116185 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:50PM (#30360050) Homepage Journal

    "I have difficulty seeing how this universe can be made to function effectively in the absence of some sort of regulatory regime to ensure transparency and fairness in situations where the Internet access providers themselves are providing their own content that directly competes with content from the external Internet."

    I'm neither trolling nor taking cheap shots here.

    TFS is right if the implication is that things only change from market forces or regulatory ones.

    Market forces are held back when there are few choices - such as that faced by a large number of TV consumers that can't get decent over-the-air (OTA) reception - or their favorite shows via OTA. For many people, it's a take it or leave it option for cable OR satellite.

    Now enter streaming video. Market forces - especially among /.'rs - might well prefer that - but then, we hit the take-it-or-leave-it ISP download options - and in many markets, the tech is apparently running well behind the demand due to payoff (return on investment?) considerations for the various network providers.

    Now - add in TV and ISP interests and hope for regulatory salvation. While laudable theoretically, it's a formula for even more special interest lobbying.

    FWIW - note that cable companies seem to successfully lobby many states for an added tax on satellite TV, as one example of infighting hitting the consumers.

    Don't forget the ever-present MPAA and programming conglomerates for cable / satellite - they want the cable feeds to be hard to copy, or circumvent.

    Like it or not - cable or sat can with present tech deliver a LOT of programming in their respective pipes - streaming is not ready to fully compete in terms of delivery systems, DRM that the industry will allow, and ease of use for the consumers.

    I, for one, do not see a viable solution to this situation.

    But - I shudder at the word "regulatory."

  • Re:cablecard is dead (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Monday December 07, 2009 @08:58PM (#30360112) Homepage Journal

    there hasn't been any new models cablecard enabled TV set since 2006

    Yet now there are Netflix-enabled TV's. The market is routing around the damage that is the telco hegemony.

    Currently Netflix TV shows are time-delayed by several months. That's a policy decision, not a technical one, though.

    Anybody know if radio broadcast and IP unicast are still converging on price-parity in 2015? That was the prediction in 2005. After that, TV stations are too expensive to run.

  • Re:One idea (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gsarnold ( 52800 ) <gsarnoldNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday December 07, 2009 @09:13PM (#30360198)

    I agree that the FCC is not seeing the real problem here, but I have a better solution.

    Video=Voice=Data. It's all bits. Barring (maybe) wireless we will not ever have actual competition in the current system because the market has a naturally high barrier to entry: the high cost and difficulty of pulling physical cables. (permits, zoning rules, capacity/buildout planning, "who really wants five cables from five different providers running into their house?!", etc...) That's why there is no mom and pop broadband market.

    So, let's allow local government to seize ownership (eminent domain) and operation of the physical layer from the phone and cable companies, and lease access to anyone that wants to provide voice, video or data service. We stop running redundant cables, we stop letting service providers leverage their networks to strongarm their customers, and we stop letting them use their existing regional monopolies to lock out competition.

    If we did roads the way we do data, you'd need to sign a five year contract and agree to have the roads around your house torn up and rebuilt to shop at Target instead of Walmart.

  • Re:One idea (Score:3, Interesting)

    by royallthefourth ( 1564389 ) <royallthefourth@gmail.com> on Monday December 07, 2009 @09:15PM (#30360214)
    It's not anti-capitlist. The companies will still be owned by capital investors expecting a return on their investment. Perhaps a few capitalists will have some of their potential gains transferred to the hands of other capitalists, but the class as a whole would suffer no net loss.

    This is America. Capital always wins at the end of the day.
  • Re:Who cares? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by icegreentea ( 974342 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @09:19PM (#30360240)
    TV is dead to you. Stupid shit. I'm sorry about the language, but this type of attitude is fucking stupid. "I don't use it, therefore it's useless". For fucks sake. You and your immediate acquaintances don't drive cars? 'Driving is end. I can just bike and take transit wherever I want'. And it's worst! This is like saying 'theatre's are dead! I just torrent the movies anyways'. That's just fucking stupid.

    How the fuck did you get rated insightful? For fucks sake.
  • by rlds ( 849683 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @09:21PM (#30360252)
    Verizon lets me use a M-Card on my Tivo HD. They had to install it when they came to remove my cable set to box, and configure it themselves. Then they charge me $2 less for the card per month as compared to the STB. Why can't I just buy the card? Why do they have to install it? (For now they are not charging for the truck rollout). The Tivo HD also gives me access to internet content, like from Netflix. That's my video on demand. So my virtual STB is working fine. I don't miss any of Verizon's extra services.
  • by rtfa-troll ( 1340807 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @09:26PM (#30360300)

    we need the regulatory institution because the cable providers have a monopoly,

    No no no; we don't need more regulation. This whole problem is caused by excess regulation. See the only business model allowed is the cable TV model of delivering signal to the home. Obviously the first one to get their gets the network effect and wins. Now if the corporations were allowed to round up their customers and bring them to their corporate office, more competitors would be able to even up the market. Alternatively, if they were allowed to bomb competitors customers they would be able to persuade some to use a newly built network elsewhere.

    You see, as ever, the only reason we need more regulation is because there was already too much bad regulation which limits the freedom of the market to find the right way.

  • by ILuvRamen ( 1026668 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @09:37PM (#30360390)
    What the NEW (northeast Wisconsin) version of Time Warner Cable does, and probably other branches too, is change the digital cable exact frequencies like once a week. So sure, my Olevia TV can tune into channel 142.12 but next week it'll be 142.9824. And yes, it does go out to 4 digits apparently. So I have to rescan my TV really often just to pick up digital and digital HD channels. Then to tune directly to them, I have to remember the idiotic 6+ digit number. I can't memorize them either because it keeps changing. Talk about a scam! Their provided DVR, which is on another TV, can magically retune itself and enumerate the channels to more friendly, whole numbers too. I assume it's getting a secret data update that tells it what the channels are changing to. They're going to get absolutely destroyed if the gov looks into that too!
  • by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @09:50PM (#30360506)
    What the FCC is proposing is making the DCTV systems function like the ACTV system used to.

    YES! DO IT. It is a no-brainer.

    Until November 11, Comcast distributed every basic digital cable channel IN THE CLEAR. All of my ClearQAM devices worked with this signal just fine.

    On Nov. 11, Comcast started encrypting everything except the must-carries. Every channel that you cannot receive without the lowest level digital subscription, gone.

    When asked why they don't just trap lines that don't have basic digital so they can keep the signals I'm paying to get in the clear, they lie. They said "traps don't work". Traps have worked for DECADES. They even threatened to trap out the digital signal back in February when I first got and then dumped digital service because they weren't providing the services they promised and wanted $1/month more. If traps don't work, explain why there are times when my UNTRAPPED signals don't get through. It's so trivial to disable a digital signal that it is pathetically absurd to try to lie about not being able to trap them.

    I know why they don't want to trap: it's less convenient for them. They have to visit a house to install/remove one. They don't have to climb a damn ladder anymore, but they have to visit. I'm paying, their "convenience" takes second place.

    I'm trying to get a formal complaint lodged through the FCC for this issue, but FCC only seems interested in complaints about other issues.

    If you want to see why this is a no-brainer, read the Cable Consumer Protection Act of 1992. We've been through this "consumer provided equipment" debate with analog, and the consumer won. We need to get the consumer winning this one, too.

  • Re:cablecard is dead (Score:4, Interesting)

    by awyeah ( 70462 ) * on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @12:25AM (#30361656)

    You'll notice that most of the people whining about CableCARD in this thread use Tivo. This should tell you something about where the problem really is: millions of people use CableCARD-enabled cable boxes with no problem.

    People don't generally have problems with TiVo+CableCARD setups (once the cable company gets it set up). CableCARDs generally work fine. No, the problems are generally with the tuning adapters we're required to use. These are pieces of hardware provided by the cable company.

    In fact, the TiVos do comply with the standards quite well. Unfortunately, TiVos are one-way receivers, and don't comply with the Switched Digital Video standards, because that's not part of the CableCARD standard.

    The solution was to add the external tuning adapter, which the cable companies did a really bad job of supporting. The devices are buggy and the people on the side of the cable company had no idea how to handle them.

    Yes, the cable company-issued STBs with cable cards do work pretty well, because they have built-in two-way communications. See below as to why I won't rent a cable company DVR.

    By the way, around here, Time Warner charges TWO fees for the DVR: $7.95 "digital converter" fee, and $8.95 "DVR service" fee. That's $16.90/month for their DVR service. TiVo service is $12.95/month if you pay monthly, or $10.75/month if you pay yearly.

    Yes, there is the initial investment - even the refurbished HD TiVos are nearly $200. It's up to the end-user to decide whether that's worth it. For me... it sure was. Here's why.

    I would rent a cable company DVR if it didn't have the following problems (BTW, for techies out there, our DVRs are SA 8300HDC's running SARA):

    * It should understand that it should only record one of the same episode. e.g.: HBO plays Entourage at 10:00PM on Sundays. Then they replay the same episode several times over the next week or so. The DVR should understand that it should only record that episode once. TiVo does, but the Time Warner DVRs in this area do not.
    * It shouldn't corrupt recordings.
    * It shouldn't delete all recordings every time there's a software update.
    * I should be able to set up a series to record - not just a channel, start time, and end time.
    * I should be able to set it to record only new episodes, not repeats.

    Those are all requirements for me, and unfortunately, the cable company DVRs here simply do not do any of those things.

    Other nice things about the TiVo, but aren't requirements:

    * Setting DVR from the Internet.
    * Setting DVR from my BlackBerry.
    * YouTube on my TV.
    * NetFlix on my TV.
    * Amazon Video Store on my TV.
    * Videos from my computer on my TV.
    * RSS (Video and Audio podcasts) on my TV
    * eSATA expandability - Time Warner has the eSATA port on their DVRs shut off.

    Note: There may be DVRs from other cable systems that don't have all of these problems.

God made the integers; all else is the work of Man. -- Kronecker