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Home networks, cable-TV style

Dtcpdtla_logo The cable TV and consumer-electronics industries are battling again, this time over home-networking technologies. Intel Corp. and four giant consumer-electronics manufacturers -- Sony, Matsushita (Panasonic's parent), Toshiba and Hitachi -- complained to the FCC last month that cable TV operators were refusing to approve a content-protection technology they developed, DTCP-IP. The technology has been widely adopted by manufacturers and inter-industry groups, including the Digital Living Network Alliance (a group developing interoperability standards for entertainment-oriented home networks). The problem isn't DTCP-IP's ability to deter piracy; instead, it's the cable industry's insistence on preserving the cable "ecosystem" in a connected home.

At issue is the ability of products to work on a home network with digital-cable-ready TV sets and related devices. The FCC's "plug and play" rules from 2003 required TV sets, digital video recorders and other devices linked together in the home to meet certain anti-piracy requirements. The rules also let CableLabs, the cable industry's research arm, decide which technologies met those requirements, with the FCC resolving any disputes. As a result, a digital-cable-ready TV or TiVo will have to put electronic locks on cable programming before piping it from, say, the living room to the bedroom.

The cable industry argued for the anti-piracy provisions ostensibly to satisfy Hollywood and other content providers. And true enough, the studios have pushed home-entertainment and high-tech gear makers to provide piracy-resistant connections between their products, rather than just enabling them to connect. But here's the disconnect: while Hollywood has endorsed DTCP-IP (which stands for Digital Transmission Content Protection over Internet Protocol), CableLabs has said it's not good enough. As consumer-electronics and high-tech manufacturers coalesce around standards such as those from the Digital Living Network Alliance, they're building products that rely on DTCP-IP for secure input and output. That puts them at odds with CableLabs, which has approved DRM-based approaches from Microsoft and RealNetworks.

The issue is technical and, well, geeky, but the fundamental issue here is similar to that faced by the telephone industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Innovation in phones skyrocketed after the FCC allowed manufacturers other than Ma Bell to make them, provided that the new products didn't harm the network. Innovation in cable TV has been hamstrung, too, by the cable operators' control over equipment; just ask someone who switched from a cable operator's DVR to a TiVo (or -- shudder -- vice versa). CableLabs argues that technologies such as DTCP-IP must insure that all programming supplied by a cable operator -- including local broadcasters and public-access channels -- is given special treatment on a home network. That includes such considerations as picture quality and closed-caption information. But copy-protection technology should be judged solely on its ability to recognize and preserve the rules that content providers place on their programs. Those are objective measurements. Otherwise, CableLabs can favor technologies used by the cable industry's traditional vendors and exclude those used by their competitors.

The goal for everyone here -- cable operators, programmers and gear-makers -- should be to get more devices connected to the network. That not only will promote innovation in cable, which has been notoriously slow on that front, but also will increase cable's value to its customers. For its own good, cable should embrace DTCP-IP and take advantage of the home-networking momentum being generated by the DLNA.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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