It is gratifying to see the FCC Broadband Plan include an open set top recommendation (4.12), firmly grounded in the FCC’s continuing responsibility to implement section 629 of the 1996 Telco Act to “assure the commercial availability” of TV devices from retail and unaffiliated sources.

And welcome words in the frank acknowledgment that over 14 years “the FCC’s attempts to meet Congress’s objectives have been unsuccessful”.

So a new proceeding will no doubt move forward, given the much-documented crying need, multi-stakeholder support, and explicit congressional directive.

But how to tell if this time the effort is on track, and not just another capture-ready MacGuffin?

Ask four questions:

– Is it specified in an uncaptured venue?
– Does it use unencumbered technologies?
– Is “it” a network interface?
– Does it work for the Web?

Overview presentation downloadable here, slideshow below.

[album: http://robglidden.dev/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/FCCOpenSetTop/]

Standards “would thwart, not advance, innovation” and “entail crippling delays”  because they are “extremely time consuming, often divisive, and sometimes used by one faction to block the progress of another or to promote its own intellectual property portfolio”.

It would be easy to dismiss comments like these in the Cable industry’s latest response to the FCC set top box inquiry (#27) that question the wisdom and feasibility of a standardized multi-network gateway as just so much diversionary polemics, masked as the caution of experience.  But a closer look is merited in part because as discussed before, royalty-free standards can be America’s broadband advantage.

On the first point — the wisdom of a multi-network gateway — the NCTA has a point.  Adding another intervening box between your TV and your TV content may have a certain quick-fix political logic in the tortured history of the 1996 Telco Act’s goal of competitive services and devices.

But the important question isn’t how many boxes it should take to hook your TV to the Internet (or any network), but how few — and that will take an Internet-acceptable open video standard.

And on this score, the existing gateway initiatives have little to offer, and are even dismissive of the core need in the first place.  The Digital Living Network Alliance, seen by some as the leading gateway standards group, said flippantly in their filing to the FCC:

“there are few (if any) standards for Internet video. Another way of looking at it is there are too many standards for Internet video. DLNA Guidelines by themselves do not solve this problem.”

Instead, DLNA promotes a philosophy and architecture of “indirection”:

“network-specific hindrances can be addressed by ‘adding one layer of indirection'”

The software domain maxim that DLNA bases its strategy on — “any software problem can be solved by adding one layer of indirection” — is well-known in software development, but it is a stretch to assume it is therefore a particularly appropriate or adequate policy architecture for the multiple networking, standards, industry structure and business problems of set top boxes meeting the Internet.

DLNA and NCTA are far from alone in proposing variants of the theme of the devolving cycle of standards pragmaticism — ambivalence — doubting — bashing (check the UK version here).

But there is a better way. Instead of bashing standards, standards groups, industry groups, participants, and regulators should turn their focus and energies to how to make standards work.

References

REPLY COMMENTS OF THE NATIONAL CABLE & TELECOMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATION ON NBP PUBLIC NOTICE #27

January 27, 2010

http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7020384091

“- Proposals to require an ANSI standardized gateway solution would entail crippling delays. Standards activities are extremely time consuming, often divisive, and sometimes used by one faction to block the progress of another or to promote its own intellectual property portfolio. It would require years just to get the standards developed, at which point products would still have to be designed, manufactured, and brought to market.

– Subjecting this dynamic marketplace to an ANSI standards process in which each industry participant can delay or veto the innovations of the other would thwart, not advance, innovation.

– These demands call for massive standards activities required in multiple standards bodies for multiple services, interfaces, and technologies. Standardization and related intellectual property clearances are extremely time consuming.

– Zenith, the intellectual property holder for the rejected VSB system, sought to use the process of amending SCTE 40 to put VSB transport into SCTE 40. It slowed the standards process by submitting the majority of objections to SCTE 40 and an unsuccessful appeal to ANSI, in an effort to impose VSB transport onto the cable architecture. This process took years to resolve.

– Under the CEA standards process, IS-6 became IS-132, which became EIA-542, which became CEA-542B. It took more than 13 years to produce the very simple Cable Channel Plan standard. This slow process was one of the reasons that led to the development of CableLabs, so that the cable industry could innovate more rapidly.

– DBS could not have offered MPEG-4 if it had to await elaborate industry consensus or rule change.

– AT&T still would not have deployed U-verse if it were required to wait until IPTV issues were set through industry consensus or by an ANSI-accredited body.

– Had Verizon deferred its hybrid IP/QAM offering until such processes were completed, it too would still be waiting to enter the marketplace.

COMMENTS OF THE DIGITAL LIVING NETWORK ALLIANCE

http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7020354067

These network-specific hindrances can be addressed by “adding one layer of indirection”7—a gateway device.

As some have already commented, there are few (if any) standards for Internet video.10 Another way of looking at it is there are too many standards for Internet video. DLNA Guidelines by themselves do not solve this problem; however, a DLNA gateway device which is able to receive Internet video is able to bridge that content onto a DLNA home network.11

The FCC Video Device Innovation Notice [1] asks one of the most fundamentally central questions to the prospect of not only a viable Broadband Plan for America, but also to the very future of the Open Internet that has revolutionized communications systems of all humanity:

“How could the Commission develop a standard that would achieve a retail market for devices that can attach to all MVPD [Multichannel Video Programming Distributor] networks and access Internet-based video sources?”

There can be little doubt that video is a central broadband driver, but simply put, today there is no standard for “Internet-based video”.  Just ask the World Wide Web Consortium, who has struggled for years to no success to find an acceptable video standard to incorporate into HTML5, the first major update to the core Web standard in a decade [2].

Of course, there is a lot of video on the Internet, but it is controlled by a hodge-podge of proprietary and so-called “semi-open” plug-ins that do not meet even the loosest definition of “standard” and certainly nothing that comes near meeting the requirements, processes, and practices of the standardizing bodies of the Web and Internet.

So developing a standard that could attach to both MVPD and Internet video would require in the first place developing a standard for Internet video, on terms acceptable to the Open Internet.  The FCC has much to contribute on this score, as do broadcasters in the burgeoning EBU-led “hybrid broadcast-broadband” initiative, which has already developed clear and measurable requirements specifically for hybrid, multi-network video standards [3].

But the non-solution to this problem is as clear as it is unacceptable.  Forcing the Open Internet to adopt the closed, “walled-garden” model and captured, controlled specifications of status-quo gridlock that are dogging digital TV, digital cable, and IPTV, or concede to proprietary control, would certainly damage the Open Internet and perpetuate the dysfunctional tendencies of “standards as trade association lobbying” that underpin this FCC notice.

The right way forward is equally clear.  Standardize, in appropriate organizations and with appropriate oversight, in the Open Internet model of uncaptured, royalty-free process, the needed elements: codecs, transport stream, conditional access, and UI middleware.

The good news is that media standards gridlock has been a global challenge addressed by regulators in retail-scale national standards, and initiatives already underway on all of these elements point to best practices, way forward to success, and pitfalls to avoid [4].  Gridlock, capture, patent overcharging, and proprietary control – key underlying contributors to the absence of the robust retail, unaffiliated device markets as contemplated by Section 629 and this notice — are not the only inevitable outcome, they can be addressed [5].

The Commission should evaluate these activities and incorporate appropriate lessons into a proactive video standardization element of the broadband plan for America, one that envisions video standards to embrace, empower, and leverage the best of the Open Internet, not one that protects walled gardens through silos of pseudo-standards and control points.

References

Notes are available in the FCC comment filing available here.

Gridlock, capture, patent overcharging, and proprietary control – key underlying contributors to the absence of the robust retail, unaffiliated device markets as contemplated by Section 629 and this notice — are not the only inevitable outcome, they can be addressed