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IPTV and FCC regulations

Fri, 09/30/2005 - 8:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

The FCC imposes a number of "social regulations" on broadcasters, cable operators and phone companies, requirements like closed captioning, content ratings, emergency alerts, 911 emergency calling and wiretapping capability. These regulations are reasonable for traditional technologies, but they break down for Internet-based services.

Take IPTV and closed captioning, for example. The FCC has rules that require broadcasters and cable operators to transmit closed captions to viewers, rules that require programmers like Discovery and Disney and Starz-HDTV to insure that captions are included when they deliver the programs, and rules to require TV sets to display the captions. Do these rules apply to IPTV services like Starz Ticket or Akimbo or Movielink? I don't think so.

IPTV doesn't have a single definition, but the term is used for a group of related technologies that involve delivery of movies and TV programs over data networks like the Internet, rather than as traditional TV broadcasts or cable programs. IPTV video might be delivered to set-top boxes, or streamed directly to computers, or downloaded for storage in digital video recorders.

There are standards for carrying closed captioning in TV programs. Analog programs carry the captions in Line 21 of the Vertical Blanking Interval. When analog programs are converted to digital, or when programs are created and delivered digitally, the captions can be carried by methods described in SCTE 20 and SCTE 21.

All the programming carried by IPTV services is the same as the programming carried by cable programmers, so the closed captioning ought to be available. For digital video, the closed captions are carried as data along with the video. The maximum data rate for digital closed captions is 9,600 bits per second, easily within the decoding capability of software. So there should be no technical problem with delivering closed captions as part of IPTV services.

Jeffrey Krauss
Jeffrey Krauss
President of
Telecommunications
and Technology
Policy
But if you go to IPTV company Web sites, and search on "captions," you find nothing. At starz.com, all the Starz cable program services show the little CC icon for all the movies, but Starz Ticket doesn't show a CC for any movie. Akimbo told me it does not provide closed captions with its programming, and Movielink declined to comment. They aren't required to carry closed captions, so evidently, they don't.

Does the FCC have jurisdiction to require IPTV delivered over the Internet to carry closed captions? Probably not. Would Congress pass a law giving the FCC authority to require closed captioning in IPTV programs? Maybe not this year, but if IPTV becomes a real competitor to traditional broadcasting and cable, you'd better believe there will be Congressional interest.

What about IPTV video delivered over a separate dedicated network instead of the Internet, like SBC and Verizon are planning? Earlier this year, telephone company reps testified that IP video delivered over FTTP networks was not cable TV service, and should not be regulated under cable TV rules. But they fall under the FCC's definition of cable systems, the FCC captioning rules apply to Verizon and SBC multichannel video services, and I understand they will provide captioned programming.

What about emergency alerts? TV stations and broadcasters are required to carry emergency alert messages, warning of local and national emergencies. Can we expect IPTV services to deliver tornado warnings to viewers in Oklahoma? Their first line of defense will be the argument that they can't deliver local emergency alert messages because they don't know their viewers' locations. But the FCC has already decided that it will require VoIP services to determine the locations of their subscribers, and supply location information to public safety agencies when 911 calls are connected. There is really no technical difference between locating a VoIP subscriber and an IPTV subscriber. (Never mind that nobody has figured out how to do it yet!)

I predict there will be plenty of controversy in telecom regulation over the next few years, for two reasons. First, there are "social regulations" like closed captioning that apply to cable and broadcasting that do not apply to the same video programs delivered over the Internet. That's not fair. And when competing services have unequal regulatory burdens imposed on them, those services with fewer burdens (and therefore lower costs) have a marketplace advantage. Of course, adding closed captioning to IPTV programs seems like it should be very inexpensive. The same might not be true for adding localized emergency alert messages.

But there's another complication here. I just signed up for a VoIP service. It allows me to make free calls to landline phone numbers in the U.S. and most European countries. The complication is that this service is based in Lugano, Switzerland. When I try to dial 911, nothing happens. And presumably, nothing ever will happen, because the FCC has no jurisdiction over this foreign-based service.

So the second area of controversy is national sovereignty. Even if Congress gives the FCC authority over IPTV, that authority only extends to U.S. companies. Maybe there aren't any foreign-based IPTV services today. But there will be. If I can go to China and buy counterfeit DVDs for a dollar, maybe soon I'll be able to watch those movies on Chinese IPTV...for a dime.

Have a comment? Contact Jeff via e-mail at: jkrauss@krauss.ws

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