One of the most interesting things about Federal Communications Commission proceedings is that they sometimes morph into free floating discussions about the technological future, veering off from their task of advising the Commission on a specific proposal. This is pretty much what has happened to the agency's comment cycle on how to further two-way cable features in light of the Great CableCARD Flop. It has become a kind of listserv debate dominated by two players: Verizon and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). Both say they agree on the need for a "platform agnostic" video system, while trying to psyche each other out on tru2way and the question of Ethernet ports for TV devices.
To recap the problem: CableCARD was supposed to let you choose your own video provider access technology independent of your cable company. Just plug the card into a TV or set-top box of your choice (like a TiVo HD) and you were good to go. But the application only accessed one-way features, not the fun stuff like electronic programming guides, video-on-demand, pay-per-view, and other interactive television (ITV) goodies. It hasn't been very popular, to put it mildly.
So the engineers have come up with tru2way, a Java-based middleware stack addition that parks itself between your TV (or any client device) and the cable company's server and makes the fun stuff happen. Not that tru2way has actually happened yet—on my last trip to Best Buy in San Francisco nobody in the TV sales room had heard of it. But there's a Memorandum of Understanding between the big TV manufacturers and the Big Six cable companies to develop and roll out the system: more or less CableCARD on java steroids (JSteroids?). And a bunch of other developers have signed on since.
So is everybody happy? Not Verizon, which is rolling out its video services based on a fiber-to-the-home network for which tru2way can't do squat. But the company has clearly decided to turn its frown upside down and pout positively. On the last day of July, Verizon's vice president for regulatory affairs, Dee May, filed with the proceeding in question, whose reply-to-comments period had expired a year earlier, applauding remarks by NCTA boss Kyle McSlarrow made at the National Press Club in June.
There, Verizon noted, McSlarrow said nice things about "explor[ing] the development of an 'all-provider' solution that would allow providers to make their own technology selection, differentiate their offerings, and use different network-specific devices to connect to plug-and-play equipment using a common interface."
Verizon offered an amen chorus to the aforementioned sentence. "As NCTA seems to acknowledge," May wrote, "an all-provider approach that is technology- and platform-agnostic would better serve consumers and promote video competition and innovation." But that just doesn't happen with tru2way, she complained, a "cable-centric" and "proprietary approach developed by and for traditional cable operators and that assumes the existence of traditional cable networks and traditional cable hardware interfaces."
Like Intel, which also has filed with the FCC on this matter, Verizon recommended that the FCC encourage manufacturers to "future proof" their devices by adding to them an Ethernet port. "This is essential in order to ensure that the technological shift toward IP does not end before it reaches the television set," May warned.
NCTA: We agree even though you're wrong
Not surprisingly, Verizon's missive quickly reached the radar of none other than The Great McSlarrow himself, who had no intention of being outdone in the field of praising one's adversary. NCTA is "pleased to find itself in agreement with much of Verizon's ex parte submission of July 31, 2008," McSlarrow's August 13 filing began. His three page letter sympathetically described the ethernet proposal as "an approach that is already completely open to manufacturers under tru2way, and which the Commission could also encourage."
But there seems to be a misunderstanding about tru2way that we wish to correct, McSlarrow continued. DTVs with tru2way will work just fine with other systems, just as long as they include the appropriate set-top box. "That is, a DirecTV set-top for DirecTV service, a Verizon set-top with Verizon service, or an AT&T set-top for AT&T service," he observed.
This correction from the NCTA provoked yet another letter of admiration and respect from Verizon's May, whose August 27 filing declared yet again that the telco is "pleased" and "encouraged" by McSlarrow's positive words about encouraging an "all-provider" cable technology landscape. But, Verizon asked in so many words, what the heck will be the point of a tru2way TV set if Verizon's customers will still have to buy a bleeping set-top box to use it???
Of course, Verizon, who just loves the cable industry, put it more nicely:
One of the principle benefits to consumers of a two-way plug-and-play solution is precisely that it will facilitate interactive services without the need for a set-top box [Verizon's italics]. So a two-way solution that permits interactivity only in conjunction with a provider’s unique set-top box—particularly when the traditional cable incumbents would not need a set-top box for the same level of functionality—is no solution at all.
At this juncture Ars thought it appropriate to contact Verizon and ask somebody there where they hope this is going. We spoke to Regulatory Affairs Vice President David Young, who said Verizon's "nirvana" will come when consumers will be able to buy a TV or TV-like device that really works with anybody's video service without a set-top box.
"We're saying that these media devices, whether they're TVs, Tivos, or those sorts of things, should have Ethernet interfaces so they're broadband ready and can plug into these broadband networks of the future that will provide interactive video services," Young told Ars. "We believe that that is going to be the common interface across all of these networks."
Does Verizon want the FCC to issue an Order requiring this? No, Young said, the company just wants the agency to encourage the industry to move in this direction. "What we don't want is for the FCC to somehow incorporate tru2way into the rules and make that a requirement. Because it's only compatible with the incumbent cable operators' networks. And so if it were forced on Verizon, or AT&T, or the satellite providers, it would be problematic."Posted on