Earlier this year, I wrote about AT&T’s plans to enable AT&T U-verse TV subscribers to use their Xbox 360 (and, potentially further down the road, Windows 7 PCs) as a U-verse set-top box (STB).  I also talked about how those plans had the potential to be responsive to FCC Chairman Genachowski’s call for more innovation in the video device marketplace, which in turn could increase broadband adoption.

In April, the FCC initiated a proceeding to review whether or not video providers, such as AT&T, should be required to install a gateway device in subscribers’ homes that would enable third party retail devices to access video services over the home network without the need for a STB on each TV.  We recently filed reply comments in this proceeding.

AT&T has long emphasized that it is not interested in serving as the exclusive provider of equipment for our U-verse TV service.  To the contrary, our goal is to maximize the inherent flexibility of offering a 100% IPTV-based service that provides cutting-edge content and applications over a broad range of devices and across multiple screens.

We have engaged in a series of discussions with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), spearheading the development of IPTV interoperability principles and co-chairing CEA’s IPTV Oversight and Coordination Committee.  This group included IPTV, cable and content providers, satellite operators, and consumer electronic companies, and was tasked with ensuring the development of interoperability standards for IPTV.

These efforts culminated in a proposal for a “carrier gateway device” similar to what the FCC has proposed.  However, to the extent that this model has foundered to date it has been because of an impasse over the extent to which a CE device would replicate the user interface or “look and feel” of the video service. 

Some CE manufacturers have insisted that any solution must enable CE manufacturers to replace the video service provider’s user interface with their own or that the CE device presents the video service provider’s user interface alongside a device-provided user interface.  They maintain that video providers should be required to “unbundle” the video service they provide to consumers by making content streams (such as specific video programming channels, programming guide data, and other services) available as individual, disintermediated components, which they could then recombine to create a new service with the manufacturers’ own user interfaces and look and feel.

Not surprisingly, in industry negotiations to implement the “carrier gateway device,” video service providers opposed these proposals.  Service providers, such as AT&T, have invested billions of dollars in a full and rich array of content, services and applications and have stressed the importance of being able to maintain the look and feel while ensuring that consumers receive the features and functions of their services.

This is particularly ironic given that over-the-top service providers routinely place “user interface” and other restrictions on CE manufacturers when they make those services accessible from devices.

For example, in my home, I have a Panasonic Blu-Ray player that includes their Viera Cast service, which enables me to access content such as YouTube or Amazon Video On Demand via an Internet connection.  When I access YouTube from that service, while the user interface is somewhat different from the YouTube website, it is still branded YouTube and presents an experience that presumably was agreed upon by both parties.  The content isn’t rebranded Panasonic with a new skin or user interface and YouTube is not required to simply provide streams that Panasonic can do with as it pleases.

And this is precisely how AT&T is proposing to make U-verse TV available via the Xbox 360.  U-verse TV will show up on the Xbox 360 menu alongside Netflix and other video options presented by Microsoft.  When the end user selects U-verse, the “look and feel” of AT&T’s service is presented to the customer.

Despite some technical and cost issues involved in implementing this approach, we continue to support the concept of a gateway device and common interface, and we are optimistic that this will one day soon become a reality in the marketplace.

Last week, the New York Times wrote about the feverish entrepreneurial activity in this space.  We hope the FCC can provide some regulatory certainty in this area, so the industry can move forward at full speed to bring consumers what they want – video, content and services on a wide range of devices.

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