Set Top Box Follies: Cox and LUS

The executive summary: Cox is acting like Cox.

The short version: LUS has asked for an exemption from an FCC rule mandating the use of cable cards in set top boxes. Cox, joined by the Consumer Electronics Association, objects.

The essence: Cox would like to throw a kink, into, to again delay if possible (or to impose additional costs on LUS if it is not) Lafayette’s FTTH project by using the FCC to force LUS to deploy technology that doesn’t exist. It seems, I suppose, like an clever way to try and use the feds to cause trouble for a competitor. The bitter irony is that the technology doesn’t exist largely because Cox and its cable brethren have refused to obey the law and develop the technology to comply with what Congress mandated 14 years ago.

If none of those short versions satisfies you’re going to have to settle in for a long, history-laden tale replete with bureaucratic battles, crippled 3rd party set top boxes, a long, successful rear-guard action by incumbents determined to keep consumers from controlling the boxes attached to their cable network and dueling technologies favored by self-interested players in a three-sided match-up. It’s one of those stories that nakedly reveals “the way things really work” in a way that doesn’t say much good about any of the major players.

Ok, first there is the cast of characters:

  • FCC: the federal communications commissions playing the part of the pitiful big guy all the tougher kids enjoy messing with.
  • The Telephone Companies: playing the confident old-timer with generations of home field advantage; the telcos have traditionally dominated the FCC game, but breaking into the video big time with IPTV-based set top boxes instead of the older cable tech requires all their lawyer’s talents.
  • The Cable Companies: playing the fiesty tough kid from the sticks the cablecos have fought a successful delaying action against federal regulations that try to impose teleco-like requirements that would allow mere consumers to attach their own devices to the tough kids’ network—and rob those tough guys of their traditional set top box charges.
  • The Consumer Electronics Association has wandered in from left field wanting to make sure that the big consumer electronics companies have a big single, unified market for set top boxes that keeps them from having to develop separate toys to control satellite, cable, and telco video set top boxes.

oh and:

  • LUS, the lonely little new kid on the block in the supporting role of the outsider whose seemingly innocuous question sets off a major battle. (This is the character whose fate is so unimportant to the plot that it’s never resolved…and only the friends and family of the actor notice.)

The background story, the setup for the latest battle:
Gather round kiddies, this story goes back to that dim time before the internet, 40 years ago, a time when things were different…Back then the FCC actually had the power and the will to break up huge monopolies like AT&T (really, it was broken up before the modern FCC midwifed in its rebirth). This all starts with the almost mythological Carterphone: a device that was to morph into the analog sound-based “modulate/demodulate” device that in turn became the digital modem of recent history. That’s right sprouts: without the Carterphone there would be no internet for anyone today. And we almost didn’t get the Carterphone. I won’t tell the long version of the story (but it’s a goodun.) What interests us today is that the FCC told the telcos that they had to let any device connect to the telephone network as long as it didn’t damage the network. Ma Bell (what we used to call AT&T) howled. But the FCC stood its ground and soon all manner of phones that hung on the wall or had push buttons, or were wireless, or were pink replaced the phone company’s black table-top rotary-dial ringer that had produced such a nice steady stream of income for Ma Bell. Though nobody knew it then the internet and VOIP and all manner of things that were to humble the once-invincible phone company flowed from that single brave decision to tell the phone company that it was only the owner of the network and had no right to tell legitimate users how they used the connection they bought.

—No, nobody knew back then but the story is oft-retold now… and the fiesty cable guys who’d once been little local municipal video providers but had coelesced into monopolies fully capable of taking on the telcos—and the sadly diminished FCC knew the implications of the Carterphone decision. And they had no intention of losing control of their network to consumers the way that the old AT&T had. Back in 1996, at the dawn of the internet era when the country was flush with enthusiasm for the new communications network, Congress passed a new telecom act which among other things, tried to reproduce the success of Carterphone by requiring that cable companies open their lines as well and specifically that they allow

“other converter boxes, interactive communications equipment, and other equipment used by consumers to access multichannel video programming and other services offered over multichannel video programming systems, from manufacturers, retailers, and other vendors not affiliated with any multichannel video programming distributor.”

In other words, Carterphone for cable. Congress passed the task of enforcement off to the FCC confident that they had done their part to insure a brighter future and turned to confusing other issues. Alas, the FCC of 1996 was not the FCC of their grandfathers and, long story short: this never really happened. The cable companies successfully argued that they had to retain control of “security” and the FCC responded by requiring that the necessary proprietary security be separated from the rest of the box and located in a device that could be used in either the cable company’s or a third party company’s box. The cable card. Delay followed delay. The FCC’s enforcement was pitiful indeed. So pitiful that it tolerated delays that meant that the first generation of cable cards was outdated by the time it was available and cable has still approve a card that is able to give third party producers access to their networks. This dithering about had damaging consequences: it left the producers of products that were clearly superior (in that people were really willing to pay for them); products that had usable interfaces and pioneered Digital Video Recording either bankrupt (Replay) or barely hanging on (TiVo).

Fourteen years later the FCC rule still stands and nobody is expected to actually follow it. Everybody has garnered an exception of one sort or another. All the players have their own version renewed occasionally on ever-varying grounds. The only constant is that the networks have never had to let their customers attach the equivalent of shiny new pink digital phones to their networks.

The consequence is that the much-anticipated digital convergence still hasn’t happened. You can’t surf the internet on your TV (well, there is an exception we’ll get to), you can’t do video telephony using your TV as a monitor, setting up recordings over the net or from your smart phone remains an uber-geek activity….and on. We could have used a cable version of the Carterphone. Instead what we got was a slightly faster version of the same access that the telephone companies had been forced to accept over their lines designed for voice. Faster internet, not access to a whole new communications network designed for video and much larger capacities.

The satellite companies never really had to comply with the law—the cable companies successful defense meant that satellite never really had to come up to bat since big brother cable proved capable of fending off the very idea. So satellite got an exception until cable could figure it all out…and cable wasn’t about to. As workable cable cards finally neared market acceptance cable whirled around and managed to get the day put off a bit longer by instituting a new non-hardware based software standard which would be oh-so-much better. They got an extension of their exception to work on that. When the telephone companies finally started to get into the provision of video over their networks it was built on the back of the new internet (the one that their lose in Carterphone days helped create), implemented a version of IPTV—and taking a leaf from the well-worn book of cable have claimed that their special technology wasn’t compatible with the old cable-card technology either. And (you see where this is going?) they got their version of an exception.

Who does that leave who does have to comply?

Surely you remember the lonely new kid on the block who asked the uncomfortable question? LUS? Apparently the argument is going to be that LUS should be the only guy in the neighborhood that has to follow the rules. This argument comes from none other than Cox Communications whose own exemption to the rule is still in place. Cox doesn’t argue that the technology exists to allow LUS to follow the rule. (And it doesn’t) Cox just argues that LUS should comply with a rule that it has never, ever, over 14 years done anything but fight itself. Citizens of Lafayette will be amused to learn that they are arguing that they only want to provide a “level playing field.” Again. Like the state’s (un)Fair Competition Act, you can be sure that when Cox says it wants a level playing field what they really mean is that they want the government to impose limits on Lafayette that it has never had to abide by itself. What is fair about asking your small local competition to abide by rules you yourself have successfully evaded? Of course this isn’t about fairness. It’s about advantage. In a halfway sane world the FCC would laugh in the face of an effective monopolist like Cox that tried to impose rules on a brand new competitor coming in from the outside any of the major sectors to provide the very high-speed, fiber-to-the-home, low priced competition that the FCC has been sniveling about wanting for the entire 14 years it has failed to enforce the law….but we don’t live in a halfway sane regulatory environment.

To pile on the insult the latest is that the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has weighed in. Understandably frustrated after all these years, all the companies that want to make the magical media devices that record all and control all in your living room have demanded that the FCC quit making exceptions and enforce its rules….on a small municipal provider that is actually providing an innovative, powerful, cheap alternative that the FCC says it wants and that is the model of everything the CEA should hope happens to US broadband. Just for the sake of completeness I should note that each of the three-telco, cable, and CEA–have their own candidates for a new technology to enable video network openness. Each of them would dearly love to control that technology and no one can doubt that the one they’d come up with would 1) advantage them, 2) disadvantage their competitors, and 3) enrich the owners of the tech. Nobody’s hands are clean.

LUS, of course, doesn’t have the wherewithal to develop a new technology itself. The set top box family deployed in Lafayette is apparently the only one that is usable with both the Alcatel equipment the community is using and with IPTV. The fact that the network is all IPTV (translation into analog for analog tier users takes place on the wall of the house) opens up vast new areas for innovation. The 100 meg intranet “campus” is a good example of what a really innovative community-oriented network can do. Neither Cox nor any other cable provider is providing free unthrottled in-network bandwidth to its users. Even more on point: LUS offers our community an internet connection through the IPTV set top box. That the box is natively IP is crucial to that very desireable feature. Subscribers that don’t even own a computer are able to surf the net. That’s something that IP enables…and something, again, that I don’t see that Cox or any of the other guys who have set top boxes have done. Really opening up the set top box is something that Congress was right about. There is huge room for innovation. The FCC’s failure to enforce, and Congress’ failure to provide adequate oversight to see that the nation’s laws are enforced have cost the country dearly.

LUS points out that every other IPTV-using network has already received this waiver and that all they are asking for is the same waiver that Verizon and other established IPTV providers have already secured. To ask new entrants who are actually competing and using the new technology to offer a cheaper, faster, more innovative system is to bear a burden the established corporations do would be stunningly counter-productive.

Let’s hope the FCC can find the courage that the FCC forty years ago had, do the right thing here and refuse to reward the bullying of a large corporation who has evaded the very rule that they hope to impose on a cheaper, local, competitor. A competitor who, incidentally, is actually demonstrating the value of innovation on the set top box that the rule is designed to achieve.

4 thoughts on “Set Top Box Follies: Cox and LUS”