NCTA devised a four-point initiative to prompt retail sales of digital set-top boxes. Provisions, detailed in an open letter from the NCTA to U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chair Michael K. Powell, include a buy-back program requiring operators to buy set-tops from consumers who move from one location to another.

The letter, from NCTA chief Robert Sachs, details security concerns related to point of deployment modules (POD), which separate conditional access for authorization for premium networks and other cable services, essentially adding portability to the box. It also ties the effort into CableLabs' OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), a middleware specification for digital cable set-tops.

An NCTA spokesman said the initiative is designed to "set the table" for retail distribution and sales of cable set-tops. Moreover, the project serves as an interim step before portable, POD-enabled cable boxes become available for retail sale from myriad manufacturers.

Under the proposal, NCTA would back cable operator efforts to "encourage" set-top manufacturers to make available to customers via retailers the same boxes with embedded security that are supplied to cable operators — and "as soon as possible."

Operators also would provision and support the boxes in their systems, with service theft blocked by proofs of purchase and other means.

Also under the proposal, operators would buy back boxes from consumers who move outside of that franchise area. Buy-backs would hinge on the boxes' condition, whether the operator still leases the box in its area, and if customers show evidence they are moving outside of the area. Exact terms would be up to operators, but NCTA assumes the buy-back price would be based on the operator's wholesale, depreciated cost.

Finally, manufacturers may create warranty periods for consumers, and retailers may offer optional extended maintenance programs for the boxes.

Because cable theft is still a problem with analog and hybrid analog/digital boxes, the initiative applies to digital-only set-top boxes, Sachs writes.

The initiative would address technical concerns that retailers have regarding point-of-deployment-enabled host units, Sachs says.

Finally, the buy-back provision would address "retailers' concerns that CableLabs' OpenCable specifications do not produce a 'portable' set-top box, i.e., one that can work on any cable system," Sachs says. Through the program, consumers would get a virtual portability "because they are able to return purchased boxes to the local cable operator for reasonable compensation."