UK ISPs as piracy police?

The Times of London had a remarkable story Tuesday about a UK government proposal to require ISPs to monitor their users' downloads and cut off service to those who repeatedly access pirated movies and movies. This is the entertainment industry's Holy Grail, or at least this year's version of it -- a set-it-and-forget-it approach to combating online piracy.

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AOL parent revives usage-based billing

Time_warner_cable_logo_2The explosive growth of Internet use in the 1990s stemmed in part from the arrival of the World Wide Web, but also from the shift from pay-per-minute to all-you-can-eat pricing from Internet service providers. One of the leaders in that shift was America Online, which quickly became the dominant provider of dial-up Internet access. Now, AOL's parent, Time Warner, is flirting with a return to usage-based pricing as a way to reduce congestion on its cable-modem service. It could be a welcome development for consumers but not necessarily for content providers, particularly those offering video through the Web.

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CES: GM on evolving smarter cars

X07co_at010l A car that can drive itself -- now that's a gadget Americans would love. But the self-guided Chevy Tahoe that General Motors was showing off in the parking lot across from the Las Vegas Convention Center wasn't exactly a production model.

Developed by a team that also included Carnegie Mellon faculty and students, the  modifications that enabled the SUV to win last year's DARPA Urban Challenge in Victorville, Calif., aren't going to be available as factory-installed options any time soon. And really, does anybody honestly want a LIDAR rig mounted on their roof?

Still, Bakhtiar B. Litkouhi, a manager in GM's research and development division, said some of the technologies that enabled the Tahoe to pilot its own way through 60 miles of simulated city traffic are starting to creep into vehicles today, and will evolve into more powerful versions in the next few years.

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CES: FCC chairman on TV cutoff

One rumor flitting around the Consumer Electronics Show is that the federal government will push back the Feb. 17, 2009 cut-off date for analog TV signals because the public isn't prepared enough for digital broadcasting. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin tried to broadcast his own message on that issue this morning. During a Q&A session with CEA honcho Gary Shapiro, Martin said, "There’s no question that it’s a hard date. I don’t see that moving at all."

Of course, Martin's vote isn't the only one on the issue. Congress can adjust the date, too. And with only about half of U.S. homes having a digital TV today, combined with a troubling lack of awareness about the impending cut-off, some consumer advocates are warning of a huge public backlash next year if analog broadcasts end. But Martin said having a sure date for the cutoff is critical to the government's efforts to resell a portion of the TV band (the auction is due to start in a few weeks). Knowing the frequencies will be available in a year, Martin said, helps potential bidders plan for the investment. It also helps technology and consumer-electronics manufacturers make plans for taking advantage of the new broadband services that are expected to result from the auction. Nothing would deter companies more from making such plans, Martin said, than moving the cut-off date.

-- Jon Healey


CES: A cable box to love

Ces_2008_image_anyplay_pdvr_docked2 Panasonic today showed off two of the first fruits of its collaboration with Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator. One was a new line of plasma HDTVs that have what amounts to a built-in cable converter box. Unlike the current CableCard-equipped TVs, these sets can deliver everything Comcast has to offer -- including video on demand services -- without need for a set-top box. They'll work with selected other operators' cable systems as well. The other new item, shown at left, struck me as the first truly compelling cable set-top box. That's because it does more than just decode and record cable signals. The device has two parts: a base station that receives and decodes cable signals, and a digital video recorder that can be detached and converted into a portable video player. The latter, called the AnyPlay P-DVR, comes complete with an 8.5" screen and speakers, and it can hold up to 60 hours of recorded video. With that kind of capacity, who needs a portable DVD player?

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CES: Take me back -- recycling gadgets

With all things digital, where do the analog devices go to die?

As households rush to amass the latest and greatest gadgets, they're chucking 400 million of tons of old electronics that are chock-full of lead, mercury and other toxins each year, according to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. Only 12.5% of that is recycled.

Consumer electronics manufacturers, which have been criticized for not doing enough to stem the flood, are starting to get with the program. Panasonic, Sharp and Toshiba today said they had formed a company to provide a recycling service to other manufacturers.

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Berman, Leahy introduce radio royalties bills

Howard_bermanU.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a much-anticipated proposal today (download the PDF here) to require radio stations to pay performance royalties. Backers include several influential Republicans and Democrats in each chamber, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the RIAA and a host of recording artists. Just as notable, if not more so, is the team on the other side: the National Association of Broadcasters, a force that lawmakers have hesitated to oppose in election years. And the NAB cares very, very deeply about this issue.

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Tougher copyright law?

Starting the legislative ball rolling, a House Judiciary subcommittee held its initial hearing today on HR 4279, a bill to crack down further on counterfeit and pirated goods. Subcommittee chairman Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) used the occasion to fire a warning shot across the bow of critics who say copyright law is already too stringent. The not-too-subtle message to tech advocates who've railed against the bill: you're not the only ones who want changes.

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Vuze and Comcast

VuzeEarlier this week, the online video service Vuze filed a petition asking the FCC to codify its 2005 policy statement into rules governing how ISPs may treat the data passing through their networks. It was motivated in no small measure by reports that Comcast was surreptitiously interfering with some types of online traffic in the interests of managing its network. In particular, Comcast was interdicting some types of file-sharing, including BitTorrent, which Vuze uses to deliver its content partners' videos.

I'll be writing more about this next week, either for the blog or the paper, but I thought I'd pass on a couple of observations by Vuze CEO Gilles BianRosa. The Comcast episode has often been characterized as having something to do with fighting piracy, because the vast majority of content that passes through file-sharing networks is bootlegged. But what's really at issue here, BianRosa said, is the architecture of the Net, which is ill-suited to the task of transmitting high-resolution video.

Comcast is one of a number of ISPs trying to rein in file-sharing, BianRosa said, and their traffic-management efforts don't discriminate between pirated and legitimate transmissions. Instead, they simply throttle applications that consume a lot of bandwidth (i.e., peer-to-peer networks). The catch is that those applications are also some of the most efficient ways to deliver what Internet users increasingly demand, namely, multimedia experiences. Programs such as BitTorrent are particularly well suited to moving big files around because they can use all the bandwidth available to a downloader, not just what's available at the source. But ISPs design their businesses around the assumption that customers don't use all the bandwidth they're paying for, at least not all the time. They can assign the same capacity to multiple people. That approach starts to break down when customers use BitTorrent to download huge files -- whether it be a licensed high-def program from Vuze or a bootlegged movie -- for hours on end.

"We really understand that problem," BianRosa said. "What we’re trying to say here is, there’s no point fighting where the Internet is going." Now that the public has acquired a taste for rich audio and video content online, it's not turning back. That's why BianRosa wants the FCC to require ISPs to manage their networks transparently, rather than using comparatively blunt tools to interdict traffic secretly. He also wants ISPs, content providers and distributors such as Vuze to work together on the capacity challenges that high-resolution video presents, rather than playing a "cat-and-mouse game" over file-sharing. Vuze and similarly oriented file-sharing firms (e.g., BitTorrent Inc.) could become the entertainment industry's best anti-piracy allies, using file sharing to generate revenue for studios instead of cease-and-desist letters or lawsuits. But they can't play that role if ISPs like Comcast take a binary approach to network management, interfering with BitTorrent traffic indiscriminately to keep their pipelines clear.


Berman aims for royalties, with discounts

In a news release today (download here), Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) said he plans to introduce a bill in October requiring local radio stations to pay expanded royalties for the music they play. Over-the-air stations have paid royalties only to songwriters and music publishers, who hold copyrights in the compositions, and not to artists and labels, who hold copyrights in the recordings.

The measure is sure to trigger a fierce lobbying battle, with both the National Assn. of Broadcasters and a coalition of artists and labels already firing salvos in Washington. Today, Berman sought to lower the heat a bit. His release promised "significant" discounts "and other accommodations" for small and religious broadcasters. "Under the legislation that we are crafting, a large majority of all radio stations will receive special accommodations," Berman said. Of course, judging from SoundExchange's stance on webcasting royalties, the music industry's definition of a significant discount isn't likely to be the same as the broadcasters'. 


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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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