Saying Goodbye to the Integration Ban


The old adage that it is harder to eliminate rules than pass new ones largely stands the test of time, but Friday, December 4 will mark an important victory for consumers and innovation when a FCC rule called the Integration Ban will be sunset.  Why Friday?  Because that was the date established during last year’s reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2014, also known as STELAR.

The Integration Ban was an unnecessary technology mandate from the late 1990’s that cost billions of dollars with no real consumer benefit. We’d like to take a moment to recognize how the repeal of this ban helps cable customers by lowering costs of equipment, saving energy, and clearing the way for better TV innovation.

First, remember that the integration ban was a rule that prevented cable companies (and cable companies alone) from deploying set-top boxes that had decryption technology integrated into the set-top box. Instead, cable devices were forced to use CableCARDs, small credit card-sized devices designed to decrypt the video signal so you can watch the TV you pay for. The irony is that cable boxes have always been capable of doing this without a CableCARD but they were compelled to use these cards as a way to ensure that cable operators would support the cards in devices made by third party providers like TiVo. As a result of the Integration Ban, cable’s set-top boxes were more expensive and used more energy than they would have had they been allowed to integrate security directly into the device.

The STELAR legislation approved overwhelmingly by a bipartisan Congress is significant because it recognizes that innovation in the television industry shouldn’t be held back by a mandate that penalizes one sector (cable operators) while others are free to experiment. The rule was also outdated because it assumed the traditional box was the sole technology to enable consumers to receive their content, which we all know not to be true, especially with smart TVs plus Apple, Amazon, Google and Roku devices now saturating the marketplace.

But this does not mean CableCARDs are going away. If customers prefer to use third party devices that require CableCARDs (like some TiVos), then cable companies will continue to support them. Because, in the end, we want customers to access their favorite content however they want.  And if that means supporting CableCARDs to decrypt video signals in retail devices, then that’s exactly what we’ll do. But forcing cable operators to use CableCARDs in leased devices benefited no one, least of all the consumers this rule arguably served.

The video marketplace has changed dramatically over the last several years (and certainly since the ‘90s when the FCC’s video device rules were adopted), with apps and streaming services changing the way people watch TV. The repeal of the Integration Ban acknowledges the ever-growing ways of distributing and consuming entertainment.

This blog also appeared in CTAM SmartBrief.