Cable Wins HD-Box Waiver

WASHINGTON — In a victory for cable operators and a partial victory for set-top box maker TiVo, the Federal Communications Commission has granted cable more time to implement the requirement that they make HD set-top boxes compliant with an open industry standard for home networking.

The FCC also clarified the open industry standard to which those HD boxes must be built and said that cable operators don’t have to conform to a single standard, as long as the one they pick is an open specification that meets common output requirements.

Cable operators had faced the prospect of supplying boxes even before a clear standard had been set.

The deadline for compliance was to be Dec. 1, but after digital video recorder maker TiVo and cable-industry trade groups the American Cable Association, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and others asked for an extension of that date, the Media Bureau last Wednesday (Nov. 28) said it would grant the cable industry until June 2, 2014 (an additional 18 months), and smaller cable operators until Sept. 2, 2014, an additional three months beyond that 18-month extension.

The FCC agreed with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and rejected TiVo’s argument that cable operators should have the flexibility to choose an interface standard as long as it is an open industry standard, rather than be forced to use just one single specification.

“We conclude that the commission did not intend to mandate a single standard that all cable set-top boxes must use,” the bureau said. TiVo had sought a single standard. But the FCC agreed to TiVo’s request to clarify what the “open industry standard” requirement means.

“We conclude that the processes that the Digital Living Network Alliance [a tech consortium established by Sony] uses to develop and adopt its home-networking specifications satisfy the elements of an ‘open industry standard,’ ” the bureau said. “We thus believe that the home-networking solution that DLNA is working on now — a successor to the current ‘DLNA Premium Video profile’ — will meet the output requirements … as long as it supports the required features of recordable high-defi nition video, closed captioning data, service discovery, video transport, and remote control command pass-through.”

The FCC noted that the successor standard won’t be ready until 2013 and cited that as one of the reasons for waiving the deadline.

The record suggests that 18 months is a reasonable time for a waiver because it will “afford industry the necessary time required to complete, approve and implement the standard,” the bureau said.

Having granted the 18-month waiver, the FCC said it saw no legal or policy reason why it was necessary to grant TiVo’s request that it get a waiver for 12 months after cable operators had deployed a couple hundred thousand compliant boxes from other suppliers — Cisco and Motorola.

The ACA, which represents smaller, independent cable operators, had asked that its members get six more months than larger MSOs to come into compliance. It argued that its members were likely to face difficulty obtaining compliant devices and software in time for the deadline because larger operators typically get their their orders filled first.

The FCC said it was not persuaded that six months was necessary.

“An additional three-month time frame will best balance the needs of small cable operators while ensuring that their subscribers will not be unduly delayed in being able to enjoy the home-networking benefits of the rule,” the agency said. The ACA appeared not to mind the abbreviated extension.

“The American Cable Association applauds the FCC for recognizing that smaller operators have historically had difficulty complying with equipment mandates when facing the same deadline as larger operators,” ACA president Matt Polka said. “Instead of requiring small and medium-sized operators to file costly waivers in response to equipment shortages in the market, the FCC did the right thing by simply setting the deadline three months later for these operators.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.