STB review due, but what's next?

Comcast's recently-announced deal for NBC Universal is likely to be subject to some serious regulatory scrutiny, but it's not the only cable TV issue in the regulatory spotlight right now. Another is the set-top box review that the Federal Communications Commission embarked on recently and is currently in the comment-gathering stage. The FCC's comment deadline on the matter is later this month, Dec. 21.

The STB review is concerned with a perceived lack of both innovation and competition at the STB level, and how cable TV companies in particular have encouraged a slack environment by allegedly failing to promote open platform initiatives that could have led to a vibrant and competitive market for STBs. The cable TV industry, meanwhile, wants to make sure that it, as the core of TV service provider incumbents, does not feel the full burden of the FCC's concerns--cable wants the review to apply to telco TV and satellite TV companies, too.

The timing of the FCC's interest is curious because while STB innovation has lacked for years, it certainly hasn't within that last year. The review comes at a time when a new hybrid TV model is emerging, and we have seen the development of many new boxes that work around the traditional STB model. That evolution in turn has spurred much activity aimed at developing the next generation of the traditional STB, one that can handle the demands of a hybrid environment that seems to point toward a natural evolution to more open access to any kind of content through the STB (though I realize I'm jumping far ahead to this conclusion).

However, this recent innovation is happening a little too late and at the same time that a new FCC is aggressively looking to put its own stamp on the telecom and TV environments. The FCC seems ready to take a hard look at how STBs are sold, the type of content that travels through these boxes and where that content is allowed to go once inside the home. A new retail market for STBs could result.

Yet, it remains unclear how this review will affect the evolution toward walled-garden TV Everywhere services that TV service providers are creating. Will a more open STB be a moot point if service providers and TV programmers already have worked out how to keep the great unwashed masses from getting too much of the most popular TV content? Will a company like Comcast care about open STBs if it ultimately controls some of the most valuable programming that end users ultimately are accessing?

Regulating to get more STBs on the shelves at Best Buy is a good start for the FCC, but the issues of control and influence the FCC is concerned with reach much further and deeper into the content world. That's something regulators will need to review as TV Everywhere progresses and the Comcast-NBC paperwork lands on their doorstep. -Dan