A roundabout step forward for set-top integration

The end of the CableCARD is nigh.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on a compromise bill and related amendments reauthorizing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) through 2020, ensuring that satellite TV subscribers will still be able to receive distant broadcast channels. One of those related amendments, hammered out by Communications Subcommittee chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking member Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) would repeal the FCC-imposed ban on cable set-top boxes with baked-in conditional access modules, opening the door for cable operators to eventually stop supporting the removable CableCARD security module used by third-party STB makers like TiVo to provide interoperability with cable services.

The FCC imposed the ban in 2007 in an effort to promote the market for set-top boxes that could interoperate with linear cable services by enabling those boxes to de-scramble cable-delivered content. The rule required cable operators to use the same CableCARD security plugin in their own STBs that they were required to make available for use in third-party boxes. The idea was to ensure the operators would continue to have an incentive to support CableCARDs by putting everyone in the same boat.

CableCARDs never really caught on, however, either with consumers or set-top box makers, and the cable industry has long sought repeal of the ban on integrated units, arguing it adds unnecessary cost to operators’ own boxes.

The House Energy and Commerce bill, which is expected to pass the committee, grants cable operators’ wish by sunsetting the integration ban. However, it also gives the FCC authority to impose new set-top security rules in the future.

That balance is critical. As I noted back in March, allowing cable operators to rely on proprietary security systems would give them tremendous leverage over third-party device makers and over-the-top platform providers when it comes to integrating linear and OTT services. Anyone looking to build a fully integrated platform would need to negotiate separate deals with each individual cable provider in order to integrate those linear services into their platforms.

The CableCARD was a kludgy technology from the start, and largely failed to spur the market for third-party STBs.  But the principle of separable and standardized security modules was a good one even if the CableCARD itself won’t be missed.

By giving the FCC clear authority to impose new security requirements leaves open the door to adoption of a standardized, downloadable security system in the future. Downloadable security would enable much greater flexibility in the design of devices that can interoperate with pay-TV services than is possible with CableCARD, such as devices that can receive linear services wirelessly, and can iterate much more quickly to support new capabilities and features.

There’s no guarantee that the FCC will ultimately adopt a downloadable security requirement, of course, even if something like the current House bill ultimately becomes law. But beginning the transition away from reliance on CableCARDs without foreclosing the possibility of permission-less integration of linear and OTT services in the future is at least a step in the right direction.