Ed note: What follows is written by John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge, the non-profit group that "preserves the openness of the Internet and the public's access to knowledge, promotes creativity through balanced copyright, and upholds and protects the rights of consumers to use innovative technology lawfully."
I've linked to Public Knowledge in the past when issues around CableCARDs and Internet access have come up. They do great work and when John contacted me to say that the cable companies are trying to kill the latest initiative to broaden consumer choice (a new CableCARD-like technology called AllVid) I asked him to write something up.
Last week I wasted an hour with a cable company rep trying to move my CableCARD from one TiVo to a new one and like all the other times, it required a scheduled visit from someone that had never worked with a CableCARD before (I've probably seen 6 or 7 techs in the past five years and I'm always the only customer they've met using CableCARDs). It took a couple calls from the tech to the corporate headquarters to re-authorize the card and in the end the tech said I would miss all the on-demand stuff anyway. Oh well.
Why is TV gear so proprietary and weird, and how can it get better?
You can use any computer with any ISP: you don't have PC-only or Mac-only Internet providers, and people don't expect to rent their computers from Comcast or Verizon. Because of the subsidy model, mobile phones are more complicated, but there are global standards for mobile phone networks, and if you get an unlocked phone you can use it with any compatible carrier.
But pay TV didn't work out that way. Different MVPDs (multi-channel video distributors, the term that encompasses cable and satellite as well as newer telco-provided services like FiOS TV and AT&T's U-Verse) each use different technologies, and with minor exceptions which we'll get to, as a result you basically have to rent set-top boxes and other equipment from your MVPD.
An engineer might say that there's a reason for this--different cable networks sprouted up at different times in different ways, and each handled the transition to digital differently. Satellite and telco TV are, technologically, entirely different.
But Internet access is provided over the most heterogenous group of technologies you can imagine. You have dial-up, DSL, cable modems, satellite, fixed wireless, mobile wireless, different flavors of fiber connections, and more. Yet there's a simple model that makes sure that you don't need to throw away your computer gear every time you get a new ISP--the gateway model. Cable, DSL, and fiber "modems" all translate from whatever protocols that different ISPs use internally into something your computer can understand, such as ethernet or WiFi. There's nothing technologically impossible about standardizing a service over different kinds of networks.
No, the reasons why you (usually) have to use provider-supplied equipment to access MVPD services are business ones. Standardization is not in the interest of pay TV providers, because they all would like to keep as much control of the user experience as possible. They want you to see their services, they want you to use their VOD, they want to upsell you. They view talk about increasing competition in video devices as consumer electronics manufacturers and Internet companies trying to muscle in on their turf, and argue that they need to provide complete user experiences, and not just raw video feeds. (I'd going to argue that this is a false choice.)
The problems with this are twofold: One, letting providers keep top-to-bottom control of the user experience has been a recipe for stagnation. TV technology advances as a glacial pace compared with mobile telephony, computers, and other areas of consumer electronics. Competition, almost entirely missing from the video device market, drives those areas forward. Two, it's against the frickin' law. Please excuse my legal mumbo-jumbo.
In the 1950s and 60s, the courts and the FCC repeatedly said that AT&T was behaving unreasonably when it refused to allow "foreign attachments" to the telephone network--every telephone used to be rented from Ma Bell, and showed up as a line item on your monthly bill. In Hush-A-Phone v. United States, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals said that AT&T had to allow a company to market a privacy-protecting muffler device that attaches to telephones. In its Carterfone decision, the FCC said that AT&T had to allow people to use any harmless device with their telephones. (The device in question was a kind of cradle that allowed people to connect telephones to a radio system--so that someone on a CB radio, for instance, could be connected to someone via telephone.) The FCC followed this up with an order requiring that AT&T deploy a standard connection interface to make it easier for people to purchase their own telephones, and use devices like answering machines, fax machines, and modems. The "registered jack" standards that resulted, coupled with rules that prevented the phone company from keeping its customers from using their phone lines to dial into BBSs or ISPs, are partly responsible for the growth of the consumer Internet. It's hard to predict what kinds of innovations might develop if people were as free to interconnect with MVPDs as they are with the phone network. (That's kind of the point.)
To follow up on this successful policy, in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress told the FCC to "adopt regulations to assure the commercial availability, to consumers of multichannel video programming and other services offered over multichannel video programming systems, of 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." (This is Section 629 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and it's been codified at 47 U.S.C. § 549.)
The FCC's implementation of this is CableCARD--a little piece of electronics that's supposed to slot into third-party devices to let them communicate with a given cable provider. But the problems with CableCARD are obvious to anyone who's ever tried to use one. Cable companies have never been thrilled with them and as a result they're a pain to get--often requiring a site visit from a technician. (Third-party cable modems are much easier to set up, usually just requiring a phone call. That's because broadband companies don't gain much value from controlling the modem--they usually just provide one as a convenience.) Cable companies have subsidized their rental boxes with service fees, which can make CableCARDs seem like an unnecessary expense. They can't access on-demand content--and as entire cable channels are sometimes sent down the wire only when someone wants to watch them (these are called "switched digital" channels), that means that CableCARD devices can't even access a subscriber's entire programming line-up. And, of course, CableCARDs only work with cable--other MVPDs are mostly left out. Recently the FCC has taken some great steps to improve the CableCARD process--but there's only so much you can do to improve a model that's fundamentally inadequate. CableCARD does make it so that some people--mostly tech and TV enthusiasts--are not stuck using equipment rented from their cable providers. But it's fallen far short of the broad ambitions of the law, and has not done nearly enough to crack open the TV.
That's why the FCC proposed something called "AllVid"--a system modeled on the gateway approach that works for broadband, where each MVPD would have to convert its proprietary back-end technologies into an industry standard that the competitive consumer electronics industry can build against. People would be able to make more uses of content, view it on any screen in the house (such as smartphones, tablets, and computers), and seamlessly integrate online video sources with MVPD video. Importantly, AllVid would open up a lot of the things that are already possible for the kind of people who read this blog, to average users. They could go into a store, buy a device like a TV with an integrated PVR, and have it "just work" when they got home, regardless of who their provider is.
There has been a lot of debate about exactly what AllVid means: Would MVPDs have to use it for devices they themselves provided or could they use private technologies? Would AllVid provide electronics with a simple protocol for accessing video, like UPnP or DLNA, or would it provide some kind of user interface for third-party devices to render? This technical debate is rather moot for the moment, however. The MVPD lobby has pushed back on the FCC on AllVid pretty hard, and apart from a few meetings and discussions, nothing's happened to bring it closer to reality in months. I think the MVPD opposition to AllVid is misplaced: if they allow outsiders to innovate, they will only increase the demand for their services, in a time when leading edge of tech-savvy viewers have given up on cable altogether, and the most interesting TV products (like the Apple TV and Roku) don't even bother trying to hook into MVPD content. True, they'd have to give up a little control, and their content might be displayed right next to competing content from services like Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Instant Video. But even in an AllVid world, MVPDs would be free to provide equipment to customers directly, just as they do today, and certainly many viewers would stick with what's familiar.
In the meantime, MVPDs have--very slowly--gotten better. Cable systems are rolling out apps that let their viewers watch some channels on some devices while they're in the home. Telco MVPDs have leapfrogged cable and offer superior interfaces, better simultaneous viewing capabilities, and (with U-Verse) even let you use an XBox instead of a regular set-top box. That's progress, but it still falls short of what could happen if there were a real nationwide standard.
So, what can you do? The primary thing is to be an informed, demanding consumer. Use CableCARD devices, no matter how much of a pain your cable system makes them. They're still better than the boxes they want to rent to you. Let your provider know there's demand for products beyond what they offer. Make a lot of noise online. If you can, cut the cord and get your video from the Internet--all the content isn't there, but services like Netflix blow away MVPDs in terms of their ease of use, and the devices you can watch them on. Voting with your wallet can be remarkably effective. If you really want to get your hands dirty, you can file a comment in the FCC's AllVid docket (number 10-91). Sometimes agencies need a little encouragement to enforce laws that have been on the books for fifteen years.
If you love MVPDs, you should want them to get better. AllVid is the tough medicine that they need, but it's hard work to get them to take it.