FCC Panel Seeks CableCard’s Successor

A Federal Communications Commission-appointed committee kicked off its pursuit of a successor to the much-maligned CableCard last week, but the first meeting resulted in many more questions than answers.

In addition to sizing up the scope of the project, much of the discussion centered on the notion of a “black box” that can support video services from all forms of multichannel video programming distributors, and whether that will become a new piece of hardware or is merely a metaphor for a more virtualized component or chip that can be embedded inside set-tops and other video devices.

Known as the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC), the group comprises individuals from companies such as Dish Network, Amazon, Comcast, Charter Communications, TiVo and Google. The committee doesn’t have a lot of time to figure things out: It is required to file recommendations to the FCC by Sept. 4.

Early on, factions were already forming on what this black box should not be.

Joe Weber, chief technology officer for TiVo’s Service Provider Business Unit, warned that it’s not feasible for a retail consumer electronics company to pour resources into the support of a multitude of separate devices.

Alan Messer, vice president of advanced technology for Samsung’s Advanced Technology Lab, expressed some concerns about a so-called black box taking the form of a new chip, noting that it could significantly raise the materials costs for makers of TVs, DVRs and other retail video devices. Such a chip “might not be the right mindset,” he argued.

Also up for debate is whether over-the-top services should be considered in the committee’s upcoming report as the FCC develops new rules that will define some online video providers as MVPDs.

Mark Hess, senior vice president, office of the CTO, business and industry affairs at Comcast Cable, suggested that it will be difficult to exclude OTT from the discussion in a meaningful way given the current state of the video marketplace.

“It is an error to ignore it [OTT],” agreed Kenneth Lowe, vice president and co-founder of TV maker Vizio.

The process will also prove to be a challenge for MVPDs that were not required to adhere to the original separable security rules, such as satellite TV operators. “DBS is going to be the problem child here and bring in some unusual challenges,” John Card II, director of standards and technology at EchoStar Technologies/Dish Network, warned.