Cablers seek FCC delay on CableCARDs

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WASHINGTON -- Some of the nation's most prominent cable TV programmers are asking the FCC to continue allowing cable operators to skirt the commission's regulations designed to ultimately allow people to shop for a set-top box like they do for a telephone.

In a letter to each of the five commissioners, 11 of the biggest cable program producers from A&E TV Networks to the owners of the Weather Channel asked the commission to extend its waiver of the so-called "integration ban" rule.

In their letter, the networks argued that letting the waiver expire "will adversely affect our ability to provide new and innovative content and services to cable customers."

Under FCC regulations, cable operators will be required to include CableCARD technology in their set-top boxes by July 1. The technology segregates the security and descrambling functions that are integrated into cable boxes.

By making the security and descrambling functions separate from the box itself, the FCC hoped to create a market for the boxes. The commission first acted on the issue in 1998 under a congressional mandate in the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

That market failed to develop as the functionality of cable boxes has changed rapidly with the addition of advanced technology like digital video recorders and other sophisticated two-way functions.

Cable operators have been pushing the FCC for some time to recognize the rapidly changing marketplace and change the rules. There is a renewed urgency to get the commission to act as manufacturers must soon gear up to make the boxes in order to meet next summer's deadline.

Programmers added their voice to the cacophony this week.

"As programmers, we also have strong views about this rule because we believe its implementation will adversely affect our ability to provide new and innovative content and services to cable customers," the programmers wrote.

Forcing the operators to deploy new or re-engineer old boxes will "divert hundreds of millions" of dollars that could be used to buy and develop new programming and services, these companies contend.

In the end, the effort is likely to prove superfluous because cable operators are developing a method to download the security and descrambling software that will make the CableCARD obsolete.

"With this solution on the horizon, it seems unwise to impose a more costly, less efficient, and much less consumer-friendly burden on cable operators and their customers," the companies wrote.

But consumer advocates said the corporate arguments are simply a way for the cable companies to keep competition in the set-top box market at bay.

"They keep coming up with new ways to delay this," said Gigi Sohn, president and founder of the nonprofit public interest firm Public Knowledge. "Come on, comply with the law already."
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