Congress tasked the FCC with putting together a working group of engineers and experts to figure out the best way to ensure that consumers could buy set-top boxes from third parties at retail. That working group came up with two recommendations, one of which is favored by our coalition. That solution would allow a retail device to connect to the pay-TV signal through a virtual head end.
But what is a Virtual Head End?
A virtual head end is an interface which converts a television signal (cable TV, satellite and other types of TV) into a form which can be watched on TV display devices such as an Android tablet, iPad or Smart TV, etc. A TV display device might have recording capabilities and might even be a cable TV box. The TV display device connects to the virtual head end over a home network, plugged into a home router or operated wirelessly via Wi-Fi.
Head Ends are commonly used by cable operators to send TV signals from their headquarters into the home. The name ‘Virtual Head End’ sounds complicated, but this simply means that the TV display device is getting the TV signal locally, from inside the home, or via a TV providers cloud service. The virtual head end does not require the transmitter of the TV signal to be at the TV provider’s headquarters: instead, the TV display device gets the TV signal from the virtual head end in the home or from the cloud.
Today, each TV provider in the U.S. uses a different head end technology to send TV signals into the home. It would be impractical to require all U.S. TV providers to convert their TV systems to a single head end type so that TV display devices would work with all TV providers. Instead, the key aspect of the virtual head end as recommended in DSTAC is that TV providers in the U.S. would still use their existing networks and head ends, but then convert their video for use by TV display devices using a single, standardized interface. By using the standardized virtual head end interface, consumers who buy a TV display device can move to a new TV provider (e.g., when moving to a new home, or when changing television providers) and it will continue to work.
The conditional access function (only delivering services that a consumer subscribes to) is still controlled by the TV service provider, by whatever means they choose. The virtual head end re-encrypts the conditional access allowed TV signal before sending the signal to the TV display device. A user will need to have an account with their local TV service provider in order to decrypt the TV signal. The decryption of the TV signal is done inside the TV display device.
The DSTAC recommendations do not limit how a service operator may provide this interface. A satellite TV provider might provide the virtual head end interface from the satellite box which connects to their satellite antenna. A cable TV operator might provide the virtual head end interface in “the cloud” via a network connection to the home (similar to what some IP TV providers do today). Or they might provide the virtual head end interface from a home cable modem, or they might choose to provide the virtual head end interface from a cable TV “set-top box”. In all cases, the TV provider can choose how to implement the virtual head end interface, and the TV display device will use a home network connection (wired or wireless) to attach to the virtual head end. There is no mandated hardware required.
The only thing which needs to be mandated is that all MVPD’s need to provide a single, standardized interface to retail TV display devices. Once the standard is in place, TV display devices can be developed which will operate on all MVPD systems in the U.S.