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House to Hold Hearing on Competitive Ability of New Set-Top Device

The House Communications Subcommittee wants to kick the tires on the FCC's proposal for a new set-top "gateway" device that could drive broadband adoption by turning TV sets into monitors for computer video (TV sets have 99% penetration versus 75% or so for computers).

The committee said Thursday (Apr. 8) it would hold a hearing Apr. 15 at 10 a.m. on "The National Broadband Plan: Competitive Availability of Navigation Devices." 

The FCC wants the cable industry to adopt an open-standard, "gateway" device to replace current set-tops by the end of 2012, and in the meantime make a bunch of fixes to its CableCARD regime by next fall. The cable industry has warned against a one-size-fits-all approach to set tops.

The FCC wants the new "gateway" to be a standard interface that "bridges" conditional access, tuning and reception functions, with no additional functionality.

The FCC says it should be cheap and allow consumer electronics companies to sell network-neutral devices that can access content independent of any particular MVPD or third party, allowing those consumer electronics companies to design to a common interface, and to open standards. The device will also need to pass through content protection flags from cable operators.

The FCC wants to both create a broadband-boosting gateway and spur a retail market in set-tops, a market that both the FCC and the cable industry acknowledge was not created by the FCC's mandate that the industry separate the channel-surfing and security functions of set-tops.

That created the CableCARD regime, a hardware fix that the industry has always argued was a forced non-solution to an issue it was more efficiently addressing via work on a software solution.

"The hearing will examine implementation of Section 629 of the Communications Act of 1934 and proposals in the National Broadband Plan relating to gateway devices and CableCARDs," said the committee.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow has suggested  that the national broadband plan's focus on a "gateway" set-top device is worth studying, but not mandating, or at least only mandating as a last resort. And he suggested the plan's CableCARD recommendations were misplaced.

In the wake of the initial announcement of the gateway proposal as part of the broadband plan, McSlarrow had reiterated the association's position--which has been registered in comments at the FCC--that multichannel video providers need the freedom to innovate to meet different consumer demands and needs. He said proposals to "disaggregate" a service purchased by a customer "would undercut the very premise of innovation we should want, and are likely to fail."