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FCC moves to open television set-top box for Internet, competition

The Federal Communications Commission took a tiny step forward on Wednesday toward updating the television set-top box, a move that Chairman Julius Genachowski hopes will eventually stir more competition between providers of paid television and Internet services.

“Consumers want devices that can navigate the universe of video programming from all of these sources and present the choices to them in a simple, integrated way,” Genachowski said in the commission’s meeting Wednesday. “They also want to know that they can buy a device and not have to replace it if they change video providers.”

The FCC voted Wednesday to begin studying ways to achieve that goal, which was part of the agency's national broadband plan. One proposal would require paid television service providers to deliver their signals to a small adapter that could serve as a standard interface for broadband and paid television content. That adapter would connect to a television, computer or other device.

Motorola and Cisco make the vast majority of set-top boxes currently on the market. Cable and satellite providers control those devices by renting them to consumers. Mandating a standardized gateway device would allow consumers to switch pay TV providers without getting a new set top box. And it would permit integrated television service and Internet service on a TV set.

“We think the FCC wants to lay the groundwork for over-the-top video to potentially impose some competitive pressure on pay TV providers in the future,” said analyst Paul Gallant of the Concept Capital research firm. That policy could help Internet TV providers like Netflex, Apple, Google and Amazon, he said.

But the proposal is sure to be met with resistance.

“Cable/telecos/satellite providers are capable of bringing a fair amount of political opposition to the table if they decide this is sufficiently problematic for their pay TV business,” Gallant said.

During Wednesday's FCC meeting, Republican member Robert McDowell cautioned against rules that could hamper progress already seen in the market.

“The idea of accessing the Internet through the TV screen is certainly attractive – so attractive, in fact, that the marketplace already appears to be delivering on that vision without any help from the government,” McDowell said. “A quick Internet search revealed more than a dozen different devices available to consumers who wish to bring some or all of the Internet to their television screens, ranging from specialized web video products and software applications to elaborate home theater PCs and even online gaming consoles.”

By Cecilia Kang  |  April 22, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Broadband , FCC  
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Comments

Set TOP Box is Terminal, thats strong point. As Desktop Computer can be corrupted. While SET Top box can be refreshed from Hive.

No matter how many product Warrentees one buys, replacing desktops like chicken wire isn't likely.

even set top box will only go thru 3 changes at most liberal, then steal your vechile.

yet set top box is safer & easier to use.

Signed:PHYSICIAN THOMAS STEWART von DRASHEK M.D.

Posted by: thomasxstewart1 | April 22, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Boxes should be standardized to work with any carrier. The carriers would still be able to customize their menu's etc. Carriers MUST make it easier for TV to work without a converter box. This is just a way for them to generate more money and to lock you into contracts.

Posted by: mdembski1 | April 22, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

The current setup is bunk. I recently built a DVR out of a home computer to allow me to integrate Internet video and cable programming in one unit.

Literally 2 months after I set this unit up, Comcast began to digitize and scramble TV signals to lock you into using only 'their' box.

Cable companies are a monopoly already, so at least open up the set-top business to some competition.

Posted by: iceman219 | April 22, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Being able to choose what you watch is only half the issue. Being able to choose what you pay for is the other half.

Unless the box is opened all the way up, to accommodate a la carte pricing, there's no need to change it.

Posted by: mattintx | April 22, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I am again doubtful that the FCC has the authority it is attempting to wield. As is true in regard to network neutrality, Congress has not granted authority to the FCC to mandate the creation of devices that deliver content to consumers within specifications it sets.

And, I must come to the defense of Comcast in this instance. With Xfinity online, it offers the most Internet content for viewing without additional charges to subscribers of any provider. Coupled with Apple TV for channels I don't subscribe to, I've found this to be pretty adequate.

Posted by: query0 | April 22, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

typical Re-thug-lican (Robert McDowell), don't do any hasty that might help the consumer. lets keep allowing Big telecom to rip us off. God forbid we give the consumer any control. they all make me sick.

Posted by: submarinerssn774 | April 22, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Who else remembers when you had to rent your telephone from the phone company, or pay extra for "touch tone" service? That's gone the way of the dodo, and so should proprietary set top boxes. Consumers should be able to pay for only the channels that they want, eliminating the need to pay for the dozens of channels they never watch.

Posted by: leuchars | April 22, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse


The rationale the courts used recently for striking down the FCC's attempt to regulate Comcast was that consumers have choices. I predict that this will show how little choice the cable companies are giving their customers, as they bring out their lobbying guns (for which their customers pay).

Posted by: rick5 | April 22, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

Good luck with that.

Posted by: tslats | April 23, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

I nominate the FCC for the "Most Improved Government Agency" award. It will be GREAT if we can just go down to Best Buy and choose our set top box/DVR and pay the $200 or so it will cost retail (for a high-end box -- cheaper ones without bells and whistles like PnP will probably go for around $80, and non-DVRs will probably be around $30), rather than paying Verizon over $20/mo. for a DVR with less capacity and capabilities and that is limited to their offerings alone.

Posted by: FergusonFoont | April 23, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I think it is an outrage that we now have to have all these set top boxes.

Has anyone ever picked up their set top box lately its like a small heater it gives off so much heat.

I think the cable companies are teaming up with the power companies to make the most inefficient boxes on earth.

My new box with was mandatory from Comcast can't even be turned off using the remote.

I would love to know the cost in electricity from all these power hungry boxes in every home. I be it out weighs any increase in mileage standards by a huge margin!!!!

Posted by: cautious | April 23, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

I must say, the best thing anyone could do is learn how to build your own box.

The ones you rent from the providers are crap and lock you into their stuff.

Build your own, use it on any network and be happy.

Posted by: indep2 | April 23, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Just what we need, another fiasco like the TV swap. I suspect many had to convert to cable or satellite because converter boxes were conveniently not available.

Posted by: gmclain | April 23, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Content can be provided via the internet using the same setup as Netflix. The boxes already exist. Netflix content canbe accessed by computers, Xbox360, Playstation 3, and now the Nintendo WII.
The Netflix model offers everything including individual authentication of the subscriber.

Posted by: Jon7 | April 23, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

How would this really work?

Cable, OTA and DBS all use different modulation schemes, but building an STB that supports all of these isn't that difficult. And the current compression schemes used by cable and DBS are MPEG2 and MPEG4/AVC/H.264, all readily supported by the same chipsets.

But mandating that a cable, DBS or Internet-based video service conform to a particular STB box standard would really hamper future innovation. For example, OTA broadcast has to use 8VSB modulation which makes it unworkable for mobile reception (unlike COFDM), and also uses MPEG2 compression which is no where near as efficient as the newer MPEG4/AVC/H.264 schemes. But your local TV station can't upgrade to these newer technologies or what's yet to come, because they have to maintain backwards compatibilty with a standard decided in the 1990s. By forcing STBs to a particular standard - and similarly making cable and DBS providers maintain compatibility with this standard, we'd be similarily locking them into technology that will become obsolete. With ever increasing bandwidth, we might see the day when viewers use the superior compression provided by JPEG2000 vs. MPEG (digital cinema already uses this compression scheme), but not if we lock our STBs down today.


More than modulation and compression, the menus and guides (middleware) are where we'll see some of the most important innovations. Will it be possible to design a STB standard that will still support the next innovations in middleware? That would be like making a PC in 2002 that could run the iPad OS today - unlikely. And if the iPad ran Windows ME would anybody really buy one?

The better option is to guarantee competition. I have only one choice for high speed Internet - Comcast. And while I am very pleased with their service (it's far better than Verizon has ever been, and I was estatic the day I finally ditched my analog phone service), the lack of choice is the real issue, not the cost of the terminals. For example, Sirius only became worse after merging with XM (didn't the FCC once require that they have interoperable receiving systems?); their compression is so agressive now that I can't listen to the music channels anymore. If the FCC really wants to help then they'll insure choice instead of mandating technical obsolescence. But I'll bet they'll let Comcast buy NBC instead, as if that somehow will make any of us see improved television programming and choice.

Posted by: pwharton | April 23, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

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