Sunday, March 14, 2010

Coming Wednesday: Open-Source Set-Top Boxes?

The FCC is going to release its long-awaited National Broadband Plan this coming Wednesday. Details of the plan are leaking out, and broadcasters are the group that stands to lose the most--see Harry Jessell's column on TVNewsCheck for an analysis of and link to a speech by Reed Hundt, a former Chairman of the FCC and one of the architects of the new Plan.

One element of the plan that's been leaked will also have dramatic impact on cable least if I understand its intent. The FCC will propose a new type of set-top box that will provide equal access to cable and Internet programming. The FCC tried to open up the set-top box business several years ago when it required cable operators to provide customers with CableCARDs (conditional access/tuner devices) that could be inserted into set-top boxes and HDTVs from consumer electronics companies. The cable industry fought implementation of CableCARD tooth and nail, and even today, most CableCARDs don'y allow subscribers to access pay-per-view and other two-way services. As a result, the entire CableCARD program was stillborn, and cable operators continue to equip their customers with tens of millions of proprietary set-top boxes.

On Wednesday, the FCC is likely going to propose that CableCARD be swept aside and replaced with software-based set-top boxes, HDTVs, home theater PCs and other devices that can provide customer authentication, decryption and tuning for digital cable systems without proprietary hardware. These devices will also have Internet connectivity, and will be able to provide access to Internet video in the same device and using the same user interface (interactive program guide) as cable channels. In essence, these new devices would elevate Internet video to the same level as cable channels.

I'm now diving into wild speculation, but here's what I think the FCC will also propose: These new set-top boxes and compatible devices could be purchased by consumers and used on any digital cable system. That means that consumers could move from area to area and use the same set-top box. They would no longer have to pay any monthly equipment leasing charges to cable operators, since the boxes would be configured and made compatible with different cable systems via software and firmware changes.

I know that all of this was supposed to happen with CableCARD and didn't, so why would it happen with this new scheme? It might not--the cable industry will fight it ferociously, especially the part where they have to give equal access to Internet video programming suppliers. The advocates for an open approach have nowhere near the political clout as the cable operators and broadcasters who are going to fight the Broadband Plan. However, the time has come for "soft" cable set-top boxes; the capability to do just about everything they need to do in software has long been there, and the cost of the processing power and memory they need is very low, especially compared to when CableCARD was first proposed.

Set-top boxes that don't require a truck roll in order to install, can be provisioned by consumers and can be upgraded and reconfigured in software would save an enormous amount of money for cable operators. Companies like TiVo and Arris could make a real business out of selling consumer set-top boxes. Any Blu-Ray player with an Internet interface and the horsepower to support Internet video applications could readily be adapted to become one of these new set-top boxes. In the long run, a software-based open design makes more sense for everyone.

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