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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ‘GATEWAYS’ AND ‘SET-TOPS’

3/30/2010 7:29 AM Eastern

BY NOW, YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD ABOUT THE FCC’S NEW “BROADBAND
Plan,” and the onus it places on video providers. Refresher:
This time the outcome — whatever it ends up being — will
apply to all multichannel video providers, not just cable. By
December of 2012.

If you lived through regulatory chapters that bequeathed
the one-way CableCard agreement, then the two-way deal
that wound up as the Tru2way landscape, the relief is palpable.

This time, everyone gets their hands tied behind their
backs. Yay.

Now comes the hard part — sifting through what the
commission means by “gateway device.”
The FCC is very, very clear about all that’s wrong with
the traditional set-top box. While acknowledging that settops
are “an important part of the broadband ecosystem,”
it chastises the lack of innovation in set-tops, which “limits
what consumers can do and their choices to consume
video.”

Set-tops, the plan says, “may also be inhibiting business
models that could serve as a powerful driver for the adoption
and utilization of broadband, such as models that integrate
traditional TV and the Internet.”

Never mind that every new HDTV and 3DTV at this year’s
Consumer Electronics Show came with Ethernet and/or Wi-
Fi. By next year, you won’t be able to buy one that doesn’t
have a broadband connection.

No, what the FCC wants to see happen is a new line of
“gateway devices.”

The lingual history of video technology contains two
camps: gateways and set-tops. “Gateways” almost singularly
hail from the Internet-y, broadband-y, IP-heavy
side of the scene. This is neither good nor bad; it just is.
A gateway, in this context, is a cable modem tricked out
with accoutrements that give it more of a foothold into
traditional TV.

Set-tops, by contrast, started with TV, and are increasingly
tricked out with stuff that makes them more useful
to IP, broadband and screens other than the TV. Most
advanced set-tops used in cable, for instance — think
dual-tuner HD-DVR units here — come with an embedded
DOCSIS cable modem.

So far, that built-in DOCSIS modem does business-side
signaling, like conditional access and encryption data, guide
updates, behind-the-scenes activities. But it’s there.

So, modems with video spigots or set-tops with broadband
spigots?

That’s why it’ll be worth watching, with vigilance, what
the FCC means by the words “or functional equivalent.” Those
three words should produce an actual bill of materials for
the “gateway,” so we can see the specifics of what’s probably
already there anyway.

September