Boxee in faceoff over cable's push to encrypt basic tier

editor's corner

Jim O'Neil

Boxee is gearing up to do battle with big media, again, this time over the encryption of basic tier programming.

The company, in its blog, says that cable providers want the basic tier encrypted, and that doing so will mean that every cable subscriber will be required to rent a set-top box or cable card, even if all they want is the basic tier offered by a provider, sans any cable programming.

Currently pay-TV operators (most of them, anyway) are required to provide the basic tier, generally broadcast stations in the area, unencrypted. Subscribers who want just a selection of broadcast stations, then, can subscribe to that lowest-of-low tiers. It also means companies like Boxee and its Boxee Live TV can display those channels without extra hardware, and for subscribers to hook up extra TVs on a cable without a set-top box or card.

Public Knowledge, in a companion post, points out that the cable providers have been required to provide an unencrypted basic tier to "allow people to at least access some programming without renting a converter box."

Operators lobbying the FCC contend the move will save them money and reduce truck rolls...with the added benefit that it will be good for the environment.

Boxee notes, with some irony, that the millions of additional boxes and cards that will need to be produced, and the energy they'll consume, will more than outweigh the benefits of additional cable guy truck rolls.

Click here to view the chart from Boxee.

"It's akin," writes Boxee CEO Avner Ronan, "to a cable executive taking a private jet to an FCC meeting, but insisting on having recycled toilet paper on-board to help save the environment."

The motivation, he points out, really comes down to the $5 to $15 cable companies get each month from every subscriber who needs to rent a cable box.

"There are no benefits for consumers. None. Millions of users who currently connect cable directly to their TV or tuner (without a set top box) will see their screens go dark," Ronen writes. "To bring back the signal they will need to go pick up a box or schedule a visit from the cable guy... with the extra ‘benefit' of having to pay a monthly fee for that new box..."

Public Knowledge isn't involved as an advocate for Boxee's business, but they are pushing the FCC to refrain from the rule change, noting that forcing basic tier subscribers to have a box could be a financial burden, and could make "equipment investments obsolete."

PK makes another good point, that being that many schools use basic tier cable content available in classrooms and are even less able to absorb the costs of having to use STBs across an entire district than the general public is.

Its argument circles back to AllVid, the FCC's proposal that would enable the content provided by MVPDs to be available on a home's IP network and, as such, accessible by any device that can connect to an IP network. That initiative, of course, is trapped in lobbying limbo.

Ronen and his crew paid a visit on the FCC and presented their side of the argument, demoing Boxee and explaining how they felt a rule change could impact consumers, harm the environment and stunt innovation.

Want to have a say? Public Knowledge offers this link to contact the FCC.

Fight on.--Jim

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