Promoting Innovation in Video Devices

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Public Knowledge has long argued that the market for "video devices"--things like set-top boxes and DVRs that you attach to your cable or satellite provider's network--is not as competitive as it should be. In fact, it's not as competitive as the law requires: back in the 1990s, Congress directed the FCC to adopt regulations promoting common standards of interoperability to make the market for these video devices as competitive as the market for other high-tech equipment. As a result of this lack of competition, consumers end up paying high prices for limited devices.

There are many reasons for this lack of competition. Despite the law's applicability to all "multi-channel video distributors" (which includes cable and satellite TV, as well as new platforms such as TV delivered over fiber), the FCC has concentrated on cable alone. Many cable operators have resisted ceding control of the set-top box, and the interoperability technologies chosen themselves have proven insufficient. The rules that have been adopted have been complicated by multiple open proceedings and waivers.

As we observed earlier this month, the FCC has recently woken up to this problem. It observed that the undeveloped market for video devices lessens the demand for broadband services, and has put forth video device reform as a component of the National Broadband Plan.

To encourage the FCC to follow through on its statements and take steps to fix these problems, a coalition of public interest groups (Public Knowledge, Free Press, Media Access Project, Consumers Union, CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, and the Open Technology Initiative of New America Foundation) has asked the FCC to initiate a rulemaking to institute a common, standards-based video gateway. Just as you can use the same computer or WiFi base station whether you have cable, DSL, or wireless Internet service to your home, you should be able to use the same DVRs, integrated televisions, or other video device regardless of your provider. Consumers should not have to be experts in what technologies are used by the ever-growing universe of video providers. By establishing a lightweight common gateway, the FCC can finally achieve the goals outlined by Congress in the 1990s.

Among other things, we hope that this petition will--

  • Promote a climate that allows for more innovation in video devices, benefiting consumers by giving them increased choice of cheaper, more capable devices.
  • Move the FCC towards initiating an open process that will result in a standards-based gateway, and not a specification controlled by just one market sector.
  • Give the FCC the opportunity to make a fresh start, simplifying its procedure and discarding now-obsolete distinctions between cable and other video providers.

If you want to help promote video device innovation and consumer choice, you can file with the FCC (following the instructions here), and follow our blog as we post updates on the FCC's activities.

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