FCC Proposal to ‘Unlock’ Cable Boxes Could Be Boon for Integrators
If encryption inside cable set-top boxes is opened to third-parties, CE pros could create custom app-based video content delivery systems for their clients.
When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed and signed into law it attempted to bring into the modern age who owns what pieces of content that is created in the digital realm. It gave us Digital Rights Management (DRM) and has been both praised and vilified for the past 20 years. This piece of legislation also had a number of other provisions in it, including the need for cable companies to offer alternatives to renting their boxes.
In February of this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pushed to do just that, approving a proposal that would “Unlock the Box” via hardware or software-based apps as a means for innovation in the area of set-top box (STB) alternatives. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) followed with official comment in April urging adoption of such rules, which it said would yield a new generation of navigation devices while maintaining user privacy and content copyright provisions.
“The FCC ‘Unlock the Box’ rule is the FCC attempting to comply with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 provision,” says EFF senior staff attorney Mitch Stoltz. “They have attempted this in the past with cable cards and other technology, but the cable and satellite companies have not cooperated well.”
The proposal would mean the cable and satellite companies would make available the algorithms and encryption they use to encode their video streams to outside, third-party vendors. Access to that stream would allow other companies to develop their own version of STBs and applications. Those applications could be served up on a tablet, computer or smart television. It is currently within regulatory permission to manipulate a smart TV and install your own app. This rule change could yield the possibility of no STBs even for receiving cable or satellite programming.
“The FCC is attempting to do what was done to AT&T when they ruled that third-party telephones should be allowed on AT&T lines,” Stoltz commented.
“It is the equivalent to buying our own cable Internet modem,” says Josh Srago, a consultant with TEECOM. “This is going to open up a lot of business practices to the cable companies.”
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What the FCC is actually attempting to do in its “Unlock the Box” rules is nothing short of revolutionary for an industry that has fallen a bit behind. According to the EFF, televisions, computers, and cellphone/smartphone prices have fallen by 90 percent in the past 20 years. In that same period, notes the EFF, the cost of cable and satellite set-top boxes has increased 185 percent, costing the average consumer $231 per year — trends that would certainly indicate the cable companies would not be in favor of unlocking their boxes.
The cable and satellite companies have argued that doing so would expose consumers and content providers with a potential violation of copyright. Their reasoning is that the cable providers cannot guarantee what type of device is on the other end of their feed.
“Nonsense” is what the EFF calls that argument. The rule change does not mention getting access to everything anyone has ever produced. It does, however, mention a few interesting pieces that the FCC wanted to highlight.
The first is billing transparency. This means consumers should know what they are paying for and how much; think of it like an itemized bill. Next, making certain that the support for cable card devices is maintained; the cable industry really hasn’t lived up to this, according to Stoltz, but we’ll see how it goes. Another is an Opinion and Order to remove the “integration ban” language in a piece of legislation called the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014; if you look into that piece it points to CFR 76.1204 (a)(1), which says the cable providers can’t make boxes that can access only one type of content package.
Effects on CE Pros
So, your clients may be able to buy their own STBs. That’s great, but what does it have to do with you and your business?
“It’s going to be a headache, but another design consideration as to which box your client has and what they want to watch,” Srago explains.
Adding another line of questioning in your customer’s needs analysis sounds like a bit more work; however, it gives you a bit more control and will eventually lead to more options in your project designs.
“There is an exemption to copyright law that allows you to hack a smart TV to embed an app,” says Srago. “Imagine creating your own app to have cable television delivered to your client’s TV without the need of an actual box.”
What this means for the cable and satellite industry as a whole cannot be understated. It could mean a monumental shift in the industry as they look for ways to make themselves more attractive to their clients. They will look at breaking out bundles and possibly offering individual channels. It will also set up an entire industry of third-party box producers as well as app developers that will look to capitalize on this new segment of the industry.
The “Unlock the Box” movement has come as a result of the FCC’s “big regime push that includes more access and more information for the public,” according to Srago.
More information and access to content is not necessarily a bad thing. It gives you the opportunity to really service your clients and find out how exactly they are using video, and where and how they want to access it.
Think of this new video accessibility as another opportunity to customize a video content delivery system.
Some things you need to make sure you remember as you begin the design process. The first is to know which devices you are using and where your clients are accessing their content. The next is what sort of displays with which you will be dealing. Smart TVs are the most interesting option here, with the opportunity to include apps that will be able to stream your client’s content from either the cable company or satellite provider. The final part is figuring out how to get these streams into various locations throughout the installation. That may be the trickiest as the FCC is not clear on distributing this content regardless of whose box the content is coming from.
It’s a very exciting time to be in the industry as the FCC is making rules changes and issuing opinions. Keeping abreast of what these are and how they impact you could very well be a full-time job. For now, these latest directives give integrators some more research to do and a number of more options to consider when developing a design scheme for clients.
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Tim Albright, CTS, is the founder of AVNation. He holds a B.S. from Greenville College. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Tim at email@example.com
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