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Play nice, you kids!

Wed, 10/31/2001 - 7:00pm
Roger Brown, Editorial Director, Telecom Group

Like a long-running family feud, where even the slightest provocation can start a new war of words, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Consumer Electronics Association are once again trading barbs.

At issue this time is the pesky retail set-top initiative announced last month by the NCTA. Characterized by NCTA officials as a way to "set the table" for the day when interoperable cable set-tops would be made available at local retail outlets (and, conceivably, manufactured by several of CEA's members), this new initiative would allow current-generation digital set-tops with embedded security to be sold "as soon as possible."

Maybe this new plan will help put some life into a retail set-top environment that so far has no pulse. The problem is that it effectively submarines an earlier deal NCTA had crafted with CEA–and doesn't live up to the law.

NCTA outlined a four-point plan aimed to get the retail ball rolling. Digital set-top manufacturers would be "encouraged" to make their digital boxes available to retail outlets. And, to give consumers the impression of portability, cable operators would buy back digital set-tops from consumers who move to another city so they don't get stuck with a box that's as useless as a boat anchor in the desert.

Predictably, and correctly, CEA reacted to NCTA's plan with great "disappointment." Why? Maybe because it was never consulted. Even the cable industry's two main set-top suppliers weren't made aware of the initiative until the last minute, according to our sources.

Or maybe because it was viewed as a way for the cable operators to effectively sidestep the carefully crafted deal they worked out with CEA and to comply with FCC mandates to develop a true, interoperable set-top that has a removable security card known as a POD (for point-of-deployment).

These POD boxes, combined with CableLabs' OpenCable Application Platform, were supposed to form the foundation of a retail set-top environment. But OCAP is currently undergoing an identity crisis, and others tell me privately that the PODs don't really work.

Cable operators argue that there's virtually no retail market for digital cable set-tops. While I happen to agree (I certainly wouldn't spend $300 for a set-top that simply decodes video and gives me a guide), I have to wonder how they know this. After all, they've never tried, have they? I have yet to see an advertisement to buy one.

Frankly, the war between NCTA and CEA is becoming old, smelly and predictable. I realize that the two sides often have competing interests. But I also recall a day, not that long ago, when engineers from both camps would check their guns at the door, sit down and engage in meaningful discussions that resolved common issues.

If the NCTA and its members are really serious about retail, they must work closely with CEA. And if the consumer electronics giants really want to manufacture cable boxes, they need to understand cable operators' concerns. But in an environment where trust and compromise are scarce, this feud is doomed to continue. It's long past time to lay down the arms and behave like grownups.

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