TiVo Slams Cable Industry in Response to FCC RFI

DVR vendor/service provider, TiVo, has strongly criticized the US cable industry in a response to a recently issued RFI from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that seeks "comment on how the Commission can encourage innovation in the market for video devices that will assist the Commission’s development of a National Broadband Plan" (note: for more on the RFI, see the article published on itvt.com, December 7th). The strong wording of the response is arguably somewhat surprising in light of the presumed importance to TiVo's business model of its relationships with such cable operators as Comcast, Cox and RCN. "Innovators like TiVo who build products that compete with the devices supplied by MVPD's [i.e. Multichannel Video Programming Distributors] are put at risk by MVPDs' control over the design and functionality of competitive devices," TiVo's response states. "Many features that manufacturers like TiVo seek to offer are either barred by MVPD's, do not work consistently across different MVPD's, receive inadequate support from MVPD's, or are subject to being disabled or made less useful by MVPD's at any time."

TiVo's response argues that while "the technology for true plug-and-play operation" of third-party devices on MVPDs' networks already exists, the "most fundamental limitation on that technology, and therefore on competition in consumer audiovisual products, is the leverage conferred on MVPD's through their control of secure conditional access to networks. This control," TiVo states, "has allowed MVPD's to impose conditions on licenses. These licenses require any competitive entrant to adhere to all of the MVPD's specifications for and, most importantly, limitations on, the design of products, including the look, feel and content of the graphical user interface. Deviations must be requested and are often refused."

The response then goes on to argue that CableCARD and tru2way have not alleviated the situation: "Over 11 years ago, the Commission adopted rules concerning an interface proposed by the cable industry to separate operators' control over conditional access from other aspects of the design and functionality of video devices. This interface was ultimately marketed as the CableCARD. However, the Commission's rules have not prevented the cable industry from placing artificial and discriminatory restrictions on the design of customer premises audiovisual devices. For example, to build CableCARD-reliant devices, a device manufacturer must sign a license agreement with the cable industry-operated CableLabs, pass all of CableLabs' certification requirements at significant cost, and adhere to strict requirements on the use and presentation of cable content. Even then, under the 2003 Plug-and-Play license and regulations, the retail device obtains access only to linear broadcast channels. 'Plug-and-Play' access does not include access to interactive content and services, even though all CableCARDs, and products such as TiVo's, have inherent interactive capabilities to communicate with a cable headend. Other programming and data on the network that the cable subscriber has paid for, such as linear channels that have been moved to switched digital configuration, free and subscription on-demand titles, and all program guide data, are withheld from these retail devices. Only the few manufacturers who have agreements with cable operators to deploy the cable industry’s proprietary 'tru2way' middleware can create devices that access the full range of services currently offered by cable operators. Yet those tru2way products are forbidden by license from 1) providing any choice in user interface when accessing interactive services, and 2) including non-MVPD programming services, such as Internet-delivered content, in the user interface that displays the available cable programming. Deviations must be requested and often are refused. tru2way thus prevents a device maker from offering a consumer the full range of options that her product is capable of providing, in a single integrated user interface. In order for manufacturers to create true 'plug-and-play' video devices, these MVPD-imposed, unnecessary limitations need to be removed. Complementary and competitive content sources should be permitted to be integrated with MVPD programming even if this disrupts the MVPD's preferred financial models."

Because third-party devices' advanced features are blocked by cable operators, TiVo argues, those devices, which must be purchased outright, are unable to compete against the leased devices offered by the operators themselves: "The cable industry obviously knows that, when faced with the choice of buying or leasing a set-top box that performs exactly the same functions, in the same way, with the same user interface, consumers will opt to lease set-top boxes," the company says.

TiVo's response concludes that the FCC should "develop a solution based on standard Internet communication protocols, by requiring each MVPD to provide to any customer a 'gateway' device with the sole function of providing a secure, standardized, open, IP-based interface for consumer audiovisual devices. By providing such audiovisual gateway servers," the company argues, "MVPD's would support a retail market for devices to navigate among video sources, much as there is a retail market for PC's, printers, cameras and other consumer products that connect to broadband networks through Internet home servers." The full text of TiVo's response (including more detail on its gateway proposal and its criticism of the NCTA's HDMI-CEC interface) is available here (h/t Dave Zatz).

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