FCC Patches CableCARD; Doubles Down on AllVid

October 14, 2010 , , , ,

It’s great to see the FCC issuing orders and moving its agenda forward. The National Broadband Plan called for the Commission to increase video device competition–that is, to create the conditions that allow for third-party devices to as easily interoperate with cable or satellite video as they can with Internet-delivered content. The Commission just took an important step in the right direction by issuing an order designed to fix some of the most egregious consumer issues that have made using CableCARD devices such a challenge. CableCARD is far from an ideal solution (for example, you can’t use it with satellite), but with AllVid (the proposed successor) still on the drawing board, it’s all we’ve got for the next few years.

Today’s fixes are good news, and the best improvements we’ve seen in a long time to the CableCARD system. The Commission is making sure that customers using third-party set-top boxes will have full access to all channels. Consumers will be able to install their own CableCARDs provided that manufacturers includes instructions (and most if not all of them already do). The Commission will limit the ability of cable systems to subsidize their own boxes with service costs, which puts competitive devices at a disadvantage. It will ensure that cable operators provide their customers with the the right kind of CableCARD. And it will improve the CableCARD device certification process, clarifying that CableLabs may only impose certain technical requirements on device makers.

Is this order perfect? No. In some cases it doesn’t go as far as I’d like, and it does not fix the structural problems that have kept CableCARD from being the success it was supposed to be (here’s a letter explaining what those are). Fixing those structural problems would have been more difficult than today’s order, and there are never certain outcomes in these matters. The FCC apparently did not see the cost as worth the potential payoff.

With these important but narrow fixes, the FCC has made moving forward on AllVid and getting it deployed in a timely manner all the more important. The FCC and the Media Bureau shouldn’t be content with just improving CableCARD, especially as today’s new rules won’t do nearly as much to promote the adoption of innovation video devices as AllVid will. If the FCC is going to continue to show its seriousness in promoting video device competition, we need to see an NPRM moving AllVid forward by the end of the year. But seeing the FCC take action today gives consumers and innovators reason to hope that it will follow it up with more concrete steps.

About John Bergmayer

John Bergmayer is Legal Director at Public Knowledge, specializing in telecommunications, media, internet, and intellectual property issues. He advocates for the public interest before courts and policymakers, and works to make sure that all stakeholders — including ordinary citizens, artists, and technological innovators — have a say in shaping emerging digital policies.