September 25, 2017

I Tell the FCC to End In-Home Video Encryption

In my last post, I asked “Who Killed the Open Set-Top-Box?.” There were some great comments on that post, which inspired me to write up my thoughts and send them to the FCC. The FCC has long tried and failed to mandate that cable companies make their systems more interoperable with third-party consumer devices. Nevertheless, the Commission recently opened a proceeding (11-169) to consider whether to end the “encryption ban” that had preserved the ability of third-party devices to receive basic-tier television signals. Boxee initially protested because its users often rely on these unencrypted signals, but eventually relented when Comcast promised to deliver a Digital Transport Adapter (DTA) workaround that would involve, “the creation of a licensing path for integrating DTA technology into third-party devices.” This push to impose licensing regimes on third-party devices is the latest in a series of such pushes stretching back to the mid-1990’s. I just filed a comment arguing that if the FCC wants to get rid of the encryption ban on basic cable, it should simultaneously think about doing away with problematic licensing and encryption schemes on the consumer-facing side of the set-top box. You can download the PDF from the FCC, or read the text after the jump.
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Who Killed the Open Set-Top-Box?

A few years ago, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With my trusty Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150 I enjoyed the ability to watch and record Comcast TV on my desktop computer — and even to occasionally edit and re-upload it to YouTube along with fair use critical commentary. When I moved across the river to Boston, Comcast required me to pay for a set-top box that would tune channels on my television. However, when I plugged my PVR-150 into the cable connection, it got almost no channels at all. As it turns out, the Comcast system in Boston had been migrated to use mostly digital signals, but my tuner card worked only with analog cable signals. Fair enough, I thought, I’ll buy a digital cable tuner. As it turned out, that wouldn’t help much. The cable companies had implemented encryption to fight “service theft” of most channels that subscribers had not paid for. As a result, I lost the ability to view channels I had paid for on a device of my choosing.
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