Entertainment Steven Kippel on 11 Feb 2012

New FCC rule may require cable set-top box

New FCC rule may require cable set-top box

The cable tuner built into TVs may soon become obsolete. Just a few years after the analog antenna tuner was wiped out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandating a transition to digital broadcast, a new FCC provision in the Cable Television Protection and Competition Act may allow cable operators to encrypt basic tier cable.

This move would allow cable operators such as Time Warner Cable and Comcast to require the rental of a cable descrambler for all cable channels. Basic tier is not the same as “basic cable,” which usually means the basic tier plus dozens of popular cable networks. The basic tier is generally the broadcast stations. The FCC requires basic tier cable to be unencrypted.

“In the late eighties and early nineties, increasing numbers of cable systems started to encrypt their signals,” said Public Knowledge’s John Bergmayer, “and the rule was adopted to allow people to at least access some programming without renting a converter box.”

The public information advocate organization Public Knowledge had first supported the rule change considering many cable operators have received waives to this rule, and the rule change would possibly encourage operators to upgrade from analog to digital systems. But they are now calling for the FCC to postpone the change in order to thoroughly discover any unintended consequences after a few concerns were raised by Boxee.

Boxee has recently released Boxee Live TV, an TV tuner adapter to the Boxee Box by D-Link which allows the media player to receive over-the-air or basic cable channels and integrate it into their unique graphic user interface. Boxee is claiming that 40% of their users make use of unencrypted cable television. Needless to say, encrypting the signal would damage Boxee’s business model, as well as hamper any new innovative competition in this market, and cable systems are genuine natural monopolies.

The FCC has stated previously that they’re interested in promoting new innovative services like Boxee, which puts the commission in an awkward position. If they proceed with this provision, innovation in this space will be limited to cable operators who have no natural competition except from satellite providers or where Verizon FiOS or AT&T U-verse have managed to install their networks. Most cable companies are way behind in features, using old technologies and even shutting off new features in their current receivers, like SATA and USB storage.

Public Knowledge is encouraging everyone who uses basic tier cable to sign this petition to let the FCC know you support innovations from companies like Boxee, HD HomeRun, EyeTV, as well as tuner cards for PCs.

What do you think? Should cable operators have the right to encrypt the signals they send over their own system, or should there be room for outside competition?

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