FCC Douses FireWire Requirement For Set-Tops With IP

The Federal Communications Commission will stop requiring cable's HD set-tops to include IEEE 1394 interfaces -- also known as FireWire -- as long as the set-tops provide alternative access to content over IP home networks.

"[W]e believe that providing the cable industry the choice to use IP for connectivity instead of the IEEE 1394 interface will provide cable subscribers with a new avenue for home networking of their consumer electronic devices," the FCC's Media Bureau said in the 7-page waiver order, released June 18.

The FCC is currently re-examining its rules governing the pay-TV operators' set-top boxes, and has proposed that cable, satellite and telco operators be forced to deliver standardized IP-based gateways that would let consumers plug in any compatible consumer electronics to receive TV programming.

The Media Bureau said the FireWire waiver will be in effect "during the interim period in which the Commission considers changes to its existing IEEE 1394 interface and set-top box rules" and until the FCC adopts an order addressing interface requirements for set-tops.

Intel, TiVo and Motorola last fall had each requested waivers of the IEEE 1394 output requirement. Intel, for one, argued that FireWire was costly to implement into set-top chips and that the regulation requiring IEEE 1394 interfaces on HD set-tops was "a technological ‘bridge to nowhere.'"

Under the FCC's Media Bureau waiver, any cable operator may deploy a set-top with an IP-based connector that outputs video in a format to third-party devices in lieu of an IEEE 1394 interface, provided that the device complies with the rest of the commission's rules.

However, the Media Bureau noted, cable operators are still required to provide a device with a functional IEEE 1394 interface to any subscriber who requests one.

The order is available here: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-10-1094A1.pdf

The purpose of the FCC's FireWire requirement, which went into effect July 1, 2005, was to "set a baseline for connectivity ensuring that cable subscribers are able to fully enjoy the range of services offered by their cable provider in a secure, digital format."

However, the Media Bureau said, IP networking over Ethernet and Wi-Fi has "achieved overwhelming marketplace acceptance for home networking of media devices." As such, eliminating the IEEE 1394 requirement will serve the public interest by allowing consumers to hook up IP devices in their homes without affecting consumers' ability to request set-top boxes with IEEE 1394 interfaces from their cable operators, it said.

The 1394 Trade Association and Texas Instruments (which makes FireWire chips) had argued that \Ethernet and Wi-Fi do not offer any advantage over the IEEE 1394 interface in carrying IP.

The Media Bureau countered by saying, in effect, that the market should decide the best approach.

"[R]equiring inclusion of the 1394 interface in devices that contain an IP-based interface could discourage manufacturers from including Ethernet or Wi-Fi because the Commission's rules do not require those outputs," it said.

Two operators previously received waivers of the IEEE 1394 output requirement. In August 2004, the FCC granted BellSouth a waiver of the rule based on the telco's technical incompatibility with CableCards. In May 2009 Cable One received a waiver of the FireWire rule based on the cost that the requirement would add to a low-cost, limited-capability box.