The Alternate to Cable Cards

cablecardThe FCC just sent out for public comment a proposal to implement AllVid as an alternative to cable cards. AllVid was first introduced in 2011 by a group called the AllVid Tech Company Alliance that included Best Buy, Google, Sony and TiVo. AllVid was proposed as a universal adapter for all types of pay TV content on differing technology platforms like cable systems, satellite TV, VDSL systems, and fiber networks. This was basically going to be a universal cable card substitute that would work anywhere.

The FCC rejected the idea as costly and impractical. The original cable card order has been a boondoggle for years and only a small percentage of households ever went through the hassle of avoiding settop box fees from the cable companies. Even five years ago the FCC thought it was not realistic to think there could be a universal adapter that would work with all of the devices in the world. But since then the world of boxes that can receive cable signal has proliferated wildly making it hard to imagine a solution that would work with anything. There are now traditional cable companies sending programming to things like the Roku box and game consoles.

But the AllVid group apparently is good at lobbying and brought the idea back to the FCC again through the DSTAC (Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee), a formal committee under FCC auspices. This group was recently looking at what a post-cable card world might look like and AllVid got pushed back into the conversation. Because the DSTAC group recommended that the FCC ask for public comments the FCC sent the group’s report out, but nobody knows where the FCC might stand on the issue.

It’s impossible to think that there could even be a universal solution. The world of settop boxes is changing quickly. There is Time Warner Cable that says they want out of the settop business and are trialing both Roku and Xbox consoles as a replacement. There is Charter which builds the settop box into its base fee and doesn’t charge specifically for the settop box. As part of the attempt to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks they told the FCC that the boxes are free to customers. It’s been reported that Comcast now has a proprietary box with its own flavors of features. Google supposedly has its own box that nobody knows much about.

And there has never been a cable card solution found for settop boxes that hand off IPTV networks used on DSL or fiber network and those companies all got waivers from the original cable card order.

What probably keeps the topic alive is that there is a very vocal minority of people in the country who love the cable card order. They will do anything to avoid paying a fee to the hated large cable companies. So one has to imagine that this group is also behind AllVid, which is reported to have some support on Capitol Hill.

But every reason why the FCC rejected this the first time is still true and now there are more reasons why this is a bad idea. If we really want a solution so that people don’t have to pay for a monthly settop box it ought to come from Congress. I think every company that sells video would be glad to sell boxes directly to users at cost who insist on having them. That way each company could sell whatever box they use and there would never be compatibility issues. But the AllVid folks seem to think that by somehow coming up with a solution that will work on all networks that there will be such a volume of sales that the price for the box will come down. That is wishful thinking and so the whole industry has to watch this be argued yet another time after we all thought it was put to bed.

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