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Samsung Scores FCC Waiver For Retail-Focused CableCARD Device

A CableCARD-based retail video device from Samsung that’s expected to hit the market in time for the 2013 holidays took a big step toward that goal on Friday (Sept. 6), when the FCC granted a waiver that will allow Samsung to sell the device without an analog tuner.

Samsung has not widely promoted its plan for the device, but details about it were revealed in May, when Samsung filed documents tied to its waiver request. The hybrid QAM/IP product under development, referred to as the Smart Media Player, will use CableCARDs to support linear digital video services from cable operators alongside access to over-the-top video apps such as Netflix and Vudu. A Samsung-developed program guide will stitch them together.

The debut of the product will mark a rare, new entry of a  product with a CableCARD slot that is tailored for the retail market. According to the most recent CableCARD report issued by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the top nine incumbent cable operators have deployed 603,000 of the security modules for use in retail devices, such as TiVo DVRs and TVs, that contain CableCARD slots, versus about 42 million in operator-supplied set-tops.

Samsung has not announced a specific launch date, but told the FCC that it hoped to start selling it in time for the 2013 holidays, holding that deployment could be delayed until early 2014 if it failed to secure the waiver by the end of the summer. Samsung argued that a waiver would help it to reduce costs and power-consumption requirements in the device.

The FCC agreed, adding in its order that the new Samsung product will also increase choice for navigation devices available at retail that provide an alternative to MSO-supplied set-top boxes.

The FCC order noted that the new Samsung device will not include a DVR. It’s not clear if Samsung is developing a cloud DVR service for the device, as the company was not immediately available to discuss additional details about the coming CableCARD product. However, Boxee, the startup Samsung acquired this summer, did develop a cloud DVR that was subsequently shut down  by Samsung on July 10.

The Smart Media Player will be “unidirectional,” meaning it will not communicate via the cable network's upstream path and likely won’t be inherently able to support cable VOD. TiVo has been able to get around that in some instances by integrating with cable VOD backoffice systems and  setting up VOD streams via the box’s integrated IP connection.

Per the Communications Act, the FCC requires that “cable ready” receivers be able to tune analog cable channels up to channel 125.5. But the need for that rule is fading as cable operators complete their all-digital transitions. Samsung’s request for the waiver was not opposed, essentially a replay of a recent, similar analog tuner waiver the FCC granted to TiVo for its new line of "Roamio"-branded DVRs.

In granting the waiver, the FCC saddled Samsung with conditions in which the CE giant must spell out to consumers and retailers how the lack of an analog tuner impacts the overall capabilities and limitations of the product.

Samsung also asked the FCC’s Media Bureau to streamline analog tuner requests generally, or that the waiver granted to TiVo earlier this year more broadly be extended to all CableCARD-enabled devices with the “same functionality” as TiVo’s DVRs and Samsung’s Media Player. The FCC said the latter option is now moot, but declined to establish a streamlined process for future waiver requests “because we find that the existing process will adequately and timely resolve such requests.”

The Smart Media Player is poised to become the latest Samsung retail product with hooks into the cable pay TV system. In July, Samsung launched an authenticated app from Time Warner Cable that initially supports up to 5,000 VOD titles, with plans to add live TV streaming to the app by the end of the year. Samsung has a deal in place to support authenticated apps from Comcast in its lineup of smart TVs.

Samsung also sells cable boxes directly to MSOs that are leased to cable TV subscribers. TWC, Bright House Networks and Cablevision Systems are among Samsung’s biggest domestic cable operator partners.