FCC: No Set-Top Waiver for Comcast

As promised, the FCC Wednesday denied Comcast's "broad" request for a waiver of its integrated set-top box rules, which kick in July 1, 2007.

Earlier in the day, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin had said it would not be appropriate to issue a blanket waiver, and said specifically it would be denying Comcast's request, which would have given other cable operators a chance to develop downloadable security that would be better than the present hardware-based solution.

The FCC did grant one request by Cablevision, and a conditional waiver to Bend Cable, but Martin made clear in a statement accompanying the decisions that the granted waivers were fact-specific exceptions to a rule that needs to be implemented.

Martin said the industry had had seven years, plus two extensions, to separate out the security and and channel surfing functions of cable set-tops, which the FCC mandated in order to create a retail market for the boxes in competition to cable.

Faced with the July 1 deadline, he said, some cable operators have asked for a third extension. Cable operators argue that they are developing a downloadable security regime that will be cheaper and more effective than the SmartCard hardware solution currently in use.

But Martin, who revealed Comcast's waiver status at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, said cable's "inaction" had "hindered innovation, deterred competition and harmed consumers." He gave a shout-out to tech companies, saying that "electronics manufacturers are beginning to seize the opportunity to roll out new products" related to the set-top separation and driven by the deadline.

Martin said that a downloadable system would meet the FCC's requirements for separation, and that he would have preferred to "establish a time frame for cable operators develop and deploy" the technology with adequate assurance that time frame would adequately be met.

Absent that, he said, "I think the commission needs to move forward with its current rules."

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.