In an effort to clear the way for a relaxation of the ban on basic tier encryption on digital cable systems in the US, multi systems operator (MSO) Comcast and over the top (OTT) video service provider Boxee have announced discussions concerning a new type of set-top box (STB) to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Dubbed an Ethernet Digital Transport Adapter (E-DTA), the box will convert QAM delivered digital cable broadcasts to an IP stream such that they may be accessed by a third-party, IP-cable device via the home network. Boxee and Comcast also propose using a DLNA protocol to enable the third-party device to control channel changing on the E-DTA.
The proposal also outlines a second phase where eventually E-DTA functionality could be integrated into the third-party devices, relegating dedicated E-DTAs to being an interim solution. Detailed information concerning the specific functionally and form factor of the E-DTA has yet to be released.
US MSOs are currently prohibited from encrypting their basic tier cable TV packages, which mostly comprise channels analogous to the local free digital terrestrial (over the air) line up, as a result of the 1992 Cable Act. The logic behind the ban was that it would ensure compatibility between the cable plant and consumer electronics devices as MSOs converted to digital transmission.
Towards the end of 2011 US digital penetration of cable TV subscribers was heading towards 80%. This triggered the FCC to consider overturning the ban, on the basis that most cable TV homes are now equipped with encryption-compatible devices.
Current regulation means that MSOs require engineers to visit homes and physically connect/disconnect them from their cable systems to manage subscriber access. However, this makes it relatively trivial for subscribers to illegally connect to the cable network by performing this process themselves. MSOs argue that if they were allowed to encrypt the basic tier they could reduce piracy, leave all houses permanently physically connected to their networks and manage access remotely from the headend. This would save MSOs' money on engineering visits and consumers' time waiting for them to turn up.
Boxee has argued that lifting the ban would affect millions of cable subscribers which rely on the basic tier being unencrypted, enable MSOs to generate additional revenue from renting STBS to these subscribers which would otherwise have been unnecessary and generally stifle competition to premium cable TV from alternative providers such as Boxee. A key feature of Boxee's Digital Media Adapter (DMA) is that it is positioned to negate the need for premium cable subscriptions by allowing viewers to augment either their free digital terrestrial or basic cable broadcasts with OTT-delivered, on-demand video content from the likes of MLB, Netlix and Vudu among others. This is currently achieved by viewers fitting a USB-based adapter which houses the coaxial connector, tuner and demodulator to the Boxee DMA. The proposed E-DTA would enable Boxee to do away with the adapter for basic cable TV. Instead the Boxee DMA would access the cable channels in IP form over the home network.
Boxee was one of the first OTT video platforms to realise the importance of integrating popular, high viewership, linear TV channels within the same UI as its on-demand content. The major DMA vendors in the US - Apple, Roku and Western Digital - have so far refrained from making linear TV available via their devices, perhaps as a result of finding the additional cost of integrating terrestrial and/or cable reception prohibitive. E-DTAs would in theory also allow these other, larger DMA players and consumer electronics groups to easily integrate basic cable channels into the user interfaces of their DMAs and connected devices. Should E-DTAs be implemented in such an open manner the FCC might finally be on its way to creating the hardware democracy it has strived towards but failed to achieve with its previous CableCARD and AllVid initiatives.