House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher
(D-Va.) said Thursday (Apr. 29) that the ability to have plug-and-play
capability for set-top boxes remains an elusive goal, but one that an
FCC-proposed gateway box could solve.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association
President Kyle McSlarrow says that while his group is skeptical of government
technology mandates, he is willing to work with content owners and
manufacturers on a gateway device that unites content streams and is
interchangeable among providers.
That came in a hearing Thursday on spurring a retail market
for set-top boxes.
Boucher said that he was pleased that the FCC had proposed
such a gateway device be implemented by 2012 (as part of the FCC's national
broadband plan). He also said a workable CableCARD regime could help drive a
competitive marketplace. That regime, he said, is now riddled with problems.
"Revised CableCARD rules are needed for the near term," he said.
The FCC wants to spur the development of a retail set-top
box market as well as promote broadband adoption via the TV set--there are sets
in 99% of homes, while computers in only 75%-80% of homes.
The Commission has also proposed changes to its CableCARD
rules separating the channel-surfing and security functions of set-tops to
drive a retail market. By all accounts, that effort has not met with success.
Ranking Republican member Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said a
one-size-fits-all gateway proposal is not likely to fare any better than the
FCC's earlier efforts.
He said making the government into a gateway is
micromanagement and even a "veiled attempt" to further network
"I'm still trying out to figure out the problem,"
said John Shimkus (R-Ill.). "Every time
we try to intervene and push a service on the public, he said, we fail.
"We have video on watches, on phones, over copper, and cable and fiber and
over satellite. We ought to be focused on getting high-speed internet access to
unserved and underserved areas. That is where our focus should be. Let the
competitive marketplace meet public demand."
Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) who represents Silicon
Valley, not surprisingly saw it quite differently. She said that
the cable industry did step up to the plate to create the CableCARD to follow
up on the FCC's order to separate channel security and surfing, but suggested
the effort had struck out.
She pointed out that the committee had not dealt with the
issue in years, and said it was "important to revisit it."
The issue generally divided along political lines, with
Republicans raising red flags on a government-imposed gateway and Democrats
flashing green lights for choice and retail competition.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said the set-top is "the box
that time forgot" but that that "is about to change." He said
that, after 14 years, it is time to give more choice to consumers and spur
Sony executive Michael Williams was all for the gateway
device, saying it would provide "true, robust competition," and that
the result would be more choice and lower prices. He said Congress and the FCC
need to be involved so there can be a single, nationwide standard among cable
and satellite operators. He said the standard, calling it TV 3.0, for the device
should be open, and without licensing obligations.
McSlarrow said he was "very supportive" of the
FCC's efforts. He agreed the set-top box marektplace had not flourished for a
couple of reasons. CableCARDS were one-way devices in an increasingly two-way
world and second, they only work with cable service.
He also said there were a number of unanswered questions,
which is why the gateway proposal is an inquiry--rather than a rulemaking.
McSlarrow said consumers should be able to connect devices
without a set-top, and they should be moveable from one provider to another,
that they should be able to access Internet video and search for that video
across platforms. But he said the caution he has was NCTA's skepticism of
government mandates. But he committed to being at the table to achieve these
There should be an interface, he said, but he wasn't sure a
gateway device was there yet.
There remained content protection and other issues, he said,
but if there is a will for all providers, content owners and consumer
electronics manufacturers, he said he thought such a device was achievable.
McSlarrow clarified that he was not for a mandate, but was willing to explore the gateway concept. Eshoo said that she saw it as standards, not a government mandate. But she also praised McSlarrow for cable's efforts in seeking a gateway solution. He said the world will be two-way, and integrated, and cable was committed to doing both.