Fixing CableCARD

June 15, 2010

Imagine having to pay thousands of dollars for a telephone, as Ester Strogen did when she leased an outdated telephone from AT&T for 42 years. It’s almost funny to think of someone doing that when telephones are available for so much less money. But not too long ago, most people had to lease their telephones and pay much more for them than they were worth, because AT&T would not allow customers to connect their own phones to the network.

Unfortunately, we don’t have to imagine the same situation with regard to set-top boxes, because it already exists despite §629 of the Communications Act. §629 mandates that the FCC “adopt regulations to assure the commercial availability, to consumers of multichannel video programming” of “equipment used by consumers to access multichannel video programming…from manufacturers, retailers, and other vendors not affiliated with any multichannel video programming distributor.” The FCC’s attempts to implement §629 have failed. That’s why Public Knowledge, along with Media Access Project and the New America Foundation, filed a comment yesterday in response to the FCC’s Further Notice of Proposed Rule-making (FNPRM) issued on April 21. The FCC asked for specific advice on how to “unleash competition in the retail market for smart, set-top video devices” that are compatible with all services from multichannel video programming distributers (MVPDS).

In our comment, PK and our co-signers argued that the FCC’s proposed rules are on the right track but do not go far enough, and made several specific suggestions for improvement. First, the comment argues that CableCARD is very important to increasing video device competition today. A CableCARD is a small electronic card that can fit into a wide range of compatible devices (like televisions, video recorders, and PCs) and allows you to view cable channels without leasing a set-top box from the cable company. To implement §629, the FCC adopted rules requiring CableCARD support by MVPDs. But there were several limitations to these rules: MVPDs that operate throughout the country and whose devices are sold by unaffiliated vendors are exempt. MVPDs only have to allow access to one-way programming and not two-way (like video-on-demand). And the FCC has granted numerous waivers to CableCARD rules as well.

The FCC’s FNPRM proposed promoting the AllVid adapter, which PK supports. As our comment puts it, “AllVid will do things that CableCARD can never do, such as support all MVPDs, and not just cable.” But the AllVid system is still a hypothetical one, while CableCARD is what we have now. CableCARD is still currently a good vehicle to promote video device competition because it already exists, the cable and consumer electronics industries have already invested in it, and its flaws are regulatory, not technological. A few simple “targeted fixes” backed up with enforcement, as explained in our comment, can make CableCARD serve its intended purpose until AllVid is implemented. The FCC can work on fixing CableCARD and promoting AllVid at the same time.  

Our comment also makes several other recommendations. Among other things, it recommends greater transparency in CableCARD billing, certification of any CableCARD device that doesn’t harm the network, that CableCARDS shouldn’t require professional installation, and that the FCC promote common reliance on CableCARD. For more details, see the comment itself.