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After 14 years, FCC Tries Again To Bring Competition to Cable Access

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SAN FRANCISCO, October 14, 2010 -- As expected, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday ordered cable companies to make their programming more accessible to device manufacturers so that consumers have more reasons to buy innovative gadgets that can more seamlessly access both cable television programming and content on the web.

The order means that consumers should be able to self-install cable cards, and high-definition set-top boxes won't need the cards at all.

The order comes after a regime implemented by the FCC in 1998 called CableCARD failed to take off. It was supposed to allow third party consumer electronics manufacturers to access the programming more seamlessly by providing consumers with the ability to insert the card into devices to access the programming.

So far, only one percent of cable subscribers use CableCARDs, according to statistics cited by the Obama Administration in its National Broadband Plan, which the administration published this March. And only two device manufacturers, TiVo and Moxi, sell the CableCARD-enabled set-top boxes through retail outlets.

Innovators such as Apple, Boxee, Google, Roku, Sezmi, SonyPlayStation 3, XBox 360 and others have tried to cobble together alternative devices, but "their devices often cannot access traditional TV content that consumers value," and "without the ability to seamlessly integrate internet video with traditional TV viewing, internet video devices like Apple TV and Roku have struggled to gain a foothold in U.S. homes," noted the authors of the plan.

The order is the FCC's latest attempt to fulfill the requirement in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which seeks to bring competition to a new market in consumer electronic devices that can access cable television services.

As such, it's an interim measure until it considers new rules that would enable consumers to buy smart video devices that would enable them to change cable companies without having to buy a new device.

The deadline for that proceeding, as suggested in the National Broadband Plan, is the end of the year.

Consumer electronics manufacturers, a digital rights group, and the cable industry itself approved of the way the commission approached the issue in its order.

“We agree with the Commission that implementing these changes – including increasing options for self-installation, providing more transparency and properly equipping technicians – will assist customers who use retail devices that rely on CableCARDs," said Kyle McSlarrow, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's president and CEO.

"It has been 14 years since Congress responded to consumer frustration and required cable to allow cable boxes to be sold competitively," said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. "We have felt like Lucy holding the football with every cable industry failure to support competition in the set-top box marketplace."

“Now, consumers will be able to install their own CableCards provided that manufacturers include instructions and, importantly, the Commission will limit the ability of cable systems to subsidize their own boxes with service costs, which puts competitive devices at a disadvantage," said Harold Feld, Public Knowledge's legal director.

Photo courtesy of: Angel Raul Ravelo Rodriguez

Sarah Lai Stirland was Contributing Editor for until April 2011. She has covered business, finance and legal affairs, telecommunications and tech policy for 15 years from New York, Washington and San Francisco. She has written for Red Herring, National Journal's Technology Daily, and She's a native of London and Hong Kong, and is currently based in San Francisco.

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