Sony, Cable Firms Agree To Eliminate Set-Top Boxes
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
The set-top box, a necessary appendage for millions of cable television customers for decades, is moving toward extinction.
A leading television manufacturer, Sony Electronics, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said yesterday they had signed an agreement that would allow viewers to rid themselves of set-top boxes yet still receive advanced "two-way" cable services, such as pay-per-view movies.
In most cases, cable viewers also could dispose of another remote control because they could use their TV's control rather than one tied to the set-top box.
The agreement marks a significant meeting of the minds between cable companies and one of the world's dominant makers of consumer electronics. The two industries have been feuding for a decade about how best to deliver cable service to customers while allowing them to buy equipment of their own choosing.
Sony agreed to use the cable industry's technology in its sets as soon as possible but could not say when the first such televisions might appear in stores.
The agreement is between Sony and the nation's six largest cable companies: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems and Bright House Networks. The six companies serve more than 82 percent of cable subscribers.
Cable subscribers are generally locked into renting a set-top box from their provider if they want more than the most basic cable TV service.
More than a decade ago, Congress ordered the cable industry to allow outside electronics makers to compete for the boxes. The industry responded by developing the "cable card." The cards are inserted into competing boxes, televisions or other devices to unscramble the cable signal.
The cards have been the source of frequent customer complaints and never proved popular. In addition, sets can receive signals from only the cable company, not vice versa. Subscribers are unable to use two-way features such as video on demand, onscreen channel guides and cable-company-provided digital video recorders.
Under the new system, customers can continue to attach their own devices -- such as TiVo digital video recorders, according to the NCTA.
Customers would still need to get a cable card from their provider, but the agreement is designed to end technical glitches and allow the availability of two-way services.
The cable association said it was hopeful other electronics manufacturers would agree to use the same technology.
The industry wants to head off action by the Federal Communications Commission to impose a two-way standard.
"Every member of the FCC has encouraged the parties to resolve these highly technical issues in private-sector negotiations," said Kyle McSlarrow, president of the NCTA. Yesterday's announcement means they have done so, he added.
The FCC declined to comment on the agreement.