Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite: groundbreaking video streamer to debut at CES

via DVICE by Charlie White on 12/1/08

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Could this be the home theater PC (HTPC) killer? Netgear just placed its upcoming Digital Entertainer Elite network media streamer up for FCC approval, and so far, it looks excellent. Not only can it play a long list of file types, including those Matroska, DivX and XviD video files favored by, uh, excessive file sharers, but it can also play DRM-infested files from iTunes.

If you don’t like the idea of streaming from a Mac, PC or Linux box, downloaders can easily slide in a 3.5-inch SATA drive and play those files locally. There’s also built-in wireless-N networking if you don’t happen to have an Ethernet port nearby. Wow. This one has it all.

Expected to be officially introduced at the upcoming CES show in January, this hot box has the oomph to play back even fat 1080p video, with a mighty 40Mbps of bandwidth giving it far more playback power than Apple TV, or even the Xbox 360. Even though the instruction manual (pdf) looks great so far, we’re wondering if Netgear is capable of ginning up some kind of elegant user interface. In the meantime, take a look at this comparison table between Netgear’s box and its competitors:

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Via Engadget

FCC Orders Comcast to Stop P2P Blocking

via Gizmodo by Sean Fallon on 8/1/08

It comes as no surprise, but the FCC has officially ruled on the issue of Comcast P2P blocking and determined in a 3-2 vote that the company must stop blocking web access and fully disclose its traffic management practices to subscribers—but it will not be fined for its actions. It is only a small victory though—as we have already stated, this ruling does not prevent data caps from being implemented by ISPs and there is no guarantee that the ruling will hold up in court. Chances are the FCC does not legally have the authority to regulate ISPs in the first place.

[Bloomberg]

Did you apply for your TV converter box coupons yet?

via Engadget by Evan Blass on 1/1/08

If you’re anything like us, your only New Year’s resolution for this particular ride around the sun is to sign up for a converter box coupon in preparation for the 2009 digital TV transition — even if, also like us, your only remaining analog set is gathering dust next to your laserdisc player in the basement. Still, a bargain is a bargain, so $40 off a product or products that we don’t really need was more than enough motivation to race over to the official sign-up page only minutes after it went live. You, of course, still have a good 13 months to pick up one of these digital-to-analog converters from LG or friends, but since you’re probably not in very good shape to do much else today, why not make the most of your incapacitation and hit the Read link to fill out your application.

FCC to Comcast: Get Moving on CableCARD

The FCC has told cable companies to get moving in supporting CableCARD technology, rejecting a bid Wednesday by Comcast to receive more time to implement the platform in set-top boxes it provides by July.

Speaking at CES in Las Vegas, chairman Kevin Martin chastised the cable industry for dragging its feet in offering the technology, and said its advent would lead to new options for consumers in viewing cable television.

Instead of renting boxes from the cable providers, long a cash cow for companies like Comcast, devices would be able to be shipped from the factory “cable ready” for today’s digital cable networks. Additionally, boxes would be able to be sold at retail.

Comcast has vowed to appeal the decision. The company says the FCC policy carries no benefit for consumers, and may cause rates to increase as much as $2 to $3 per month. While smaller operators would have more time to comply, the bigger providers would be required to comply by the July deadline.

The technology is more than a decade late. Congress passed laws in the mid-1990s saying that cable companies were to come up with technology that would allow consumers to plug cable lines directly into televisions to receive advanced services.

However, the cable industry won repeated delays, and only in the past few years has CableCARD technology been offered as a solution. While the first implementation did not support the advanced features, newer versions do.

AT&T / BellSouth Merger Approved by FCC

After AT&T’s offer late yesterday of expanded concessions, including some that would guarantee neutrality in its network and routing pricing arrangements, the US Federal Communications Commission voted to approve the merger of AT&T Inc. and BellSouth, the former Regional Bell Operating Company (RBOC) that was spun off from AT&T Corp. in 1984.

As a result of this merger, none of the RBOC entities formed after the original AT&T Corp. breakup remain in their post-breakup form. The names Pacific Telesis, US West, Southwestern Bell, Ameritech, NYNEX, Bell Atlantic, and soon BellSouth will be relegated to history.

FCC commissioners were apparently impressed enough by AT&T’s promise this morning that the merged entity would provide broadband Internet service to 100% of the current BellSouth service region during 2007, including a promise within twelve months of the merger’s close (which could be next spring) to provide ADSL service at up to 768 Kbps (though many might not consider that “broadband”) as a stand-alone, non-bundled offering to the BellSouth region for $19.95 per month. No word on whether such prices will be extended to the former Ameritech, SBC, or PacTel service areas.

Another effect of the merger is that Cingular Wireless will now be a wholly-owned subsidiary of a single company, now that its two joint founders will be one.

Despite earlier skepticism from two FCC commissioners over possible anti-competitive effects from the merger, it appears the notion that “one less competitor means more room for everyone else” ruled the day. With regard to competition for retail enterprise customers, the FCC stated this afternoon, “The Commission found that competition for medium and large enterprise customers should remain strong after the merger because medium and large enterprise customers are sophisticated, high-volume purchasers of communications services and because there will remain a significant number of carriers competing in the market.”

But in an argument that may still raise some eyebrows…then lower them, then raise them again, the FCC statement actually said the merger won’t have a negative impact on the voice communications market, because neither merger partner is a major player in the global voice telecom market anyway – only within their relegated region, which just happens to be most of the US.

“The Commission found that neither BellSouth nor AT&T is a significant presence or potential participant in this market outside of their respective regions,” reads this afternoon’s FCC statement. “Consequently, the Commission found that neither party was exerting significant competitive pressure on the other in their respective in-region territories.”

Late yesterday, a letter from AT&T senior vice president Robert W. Quinn, Jr., made public by the FCC this morning, indicated the merger partners are clearly making these concessions begrudgingly, along with other concessions and promises made last October. At that time, Quinn wrote, “we emphasized our belief that these commitments were wholly unnecessary in light of the demonstrated substantial public interest benefits of the merger and the lack of any cognizable harm to competition. We noted that this belief was shared by the Dept. of Justice, nineteen states, and three foreign countries, all of which subjected the merger to exacting scrutiny and found no anticompetitive effects.”

Whether Quinn’s claim of exacting scrutiny on the part of the Justice Dept. is correct may be the subject of scrutiny in its own right after the holidays, when the matter is likely to come up before a post-Democratic-upheaval reoriented Congress. There, lawmakers are considering whether the DOJ bypassed new rules mandating judicial review of its concerns about the merger, by simply having no concerns about it whatsoever.

As promised, FCC commissioner Robert McDowell abstained from today’s vote, citing possible conflict of interest. However, his office issued a statement immediately thereafter: “I am delighted that my colleagues and the merging companies were able to come to terms so quickly after last week’s announcement,” McDowell wrote. “The shareholders, employees and customers of the new combined company all stand to benefit from the Commission’s thoughtful and prompt action. Congratulations to all.”

AT&T Merger: FCC Comm. Won’t Vote

In a short but impassioned public statement this afternoon, the likes of which has rarely been seen in Washington for decades, FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell boldly reiterated his refusal to vote in the current debate over the AT&T/BellSouth merger, citing his former involvement with a legal advocacy group opposed to the merger, and at times quoting the pillars of American ethical jurisprudence.

“While I expected the legal equivalent of body armor,” McDowell pronounced emphatically, referring to a memorandum from the Federal Communications Commission’s general counsel, Sam Feder, authorizing him to vote despite possible conflict of interest, “I was handed Swiss cheese.”

The entire speech was that riveting. As McDowell explained in detail, he had been nominated by President Bush last February to fill a vacancy on the FCC, left when Kevin Martin ascended to the chairman’s position following Michael Powell’s departure. Prior to that time, McDowell served as general counsel to the CompTel trade organization, which not only represents smaller telecom companies, but which has been solidly opposed to AT&T/BellSouth. That merger had already been announced at the time of McDowell’s nomination, so the subject of his stance on the merger became a prime topic during his confirmation hearings before the Senate.

Having consulted with the FCC’s Office of General Counsel at the time, he was advised in writing that he should immediately resign his position with CompTel, and for a period of one year disqualify himself from all proceedings in which CompTel, or anyone represented by CompTel, was a party.

“In effect, from the beginning, I have had a ‘red light’ prohibiting me from participating in particular matters involving specific parties – in this case, a merger proceeding involving two parties, AT&T and BellSouth – where CompTel is a party,” stated McDowell. “In light of this bar, I therefore have not participated in its substantive consideration.”

“Against this backdrop, on December 1, 2006,” he continued, “citing my four colleagues’ ‘inability to reach consensus on this matter,’ Chairman Martin announced his decision to exercise his prerogative to direct the FCC’s General Counsel to ‘consider whether the Government’s interest would be served by’ permitting me to participate.”

Last December 8, Feder produced his memorandum, which cited US Code in stating that an FCC employee may be directed to participate, despite the appearance of conflict of interest, “the interest of the Government in the employee’s participation outweighs the concern that a reasonable person may question the integrity of the agency’s programs and operations.”

But Feder’s language in commenting on that portion of US Code showed a certain reticence.

“Balancing these competing concerns here was difficult,” Feder wrote, “and reasonable people looking at these facts could disagree about the appropriate result. However, on balance…I find that you should not be barred from participating in this proceeding if you choose to do so.”

The “if’s” in Feder’s language left considerable holes in the legal argument, which McDowell – an accomplished attorney, obviously -drove a truck straight through.

“In all candor…I had expected a memorandum making a strong and clear case for my participation,” he enunciated. “Instead, the Authorization Memo is hesitant, does not acknowledge crucial facts and analyses, and concludes by framing this matter as an ethical coin-toss frozen in mid-air. The document does not provide me with confidence or comfort. Nor does the December 11, 2006, letter responding to the questions posed by Representatives Dingell and Markey [of the House Energy and Commerce Committee].”

Feder’s memo, McDowell pointed out, didn’t even raise the issue of his earlier commitment to disqualify himself from certain proceedings for one year – a commitment which, he made clear, became a promise to the US Senate in exchange for its blessing upon his nomination.

“Senators relied on these representations when they confirmed me unanimously on May 26,” he said. “Yet, the Authorization Memo offers no discussion of, let alone justification for, why or how the Ethics Agreement may be breached.”

Late last week and over the weekend, McDowell sought legal advice from a number of reputable sources, including the Virginia State Bar. None could sway his decision, nor his stance – in fact, they probably reinforced it.

In a statement that sounded ominously like it could have been a resignation, McDowell went on: “Throughout my brief tenure here at the FCC, I have tried to be as thoughtful, transparent and direct as possible in my decision making. With each decision I make, I endeavor to keep in mind why the FCC exists and what the mission of each commissioner should be; and that, of course, is to promote and protect the public interest. We must never lose sight of the fact that the ultimate shareholders in every endeavor we embark upon are the American people. In this vein, it is incumbent upon every public servant to do all that he or she can to earn the public’s trust in the integrity and impartiality of their government.”

“In light of these factors,” he continued, “I find that I have no choice but to abide by the terms of my Ethics Agreement, heed the independent advice of OGE and my personal ethics counsel, and, ultimately to follow my own personal sense of ethics. Accordingly, I disqualify myself from this matter.”

Tossing the ball into the court of the four remaining FCC commissioners – if not kicking it there as though it were the fourth quarter with two seconds left from the 50-yard line, and with a two-point deficit – McDowell slowly and distinctly urged them to come to a reasonable compromise.

“Because I am an incurable optimist,” he pronounced, citing the spirit of the holiday season, “I am confident that this merger can be resolved with the same speed and unanimity as the SBC/AT&T and Verizon/MCI mergers of last year.

“Now, my four colleagues have exclusive and unambiguous ownership of this important merger. Having only four Commissioners participate really should not be an impediment to progress. There have been many stretches of time in recent history when only four Commissioners sat on the FCC. In fact, since 1990, the Commission has had fewer than five Commissioners for a combined period of over five years. During these periods, contentious and difficult mergers were successfully considered. And, the two Bell mergers reviewed just last year were approved unanimously by a four-member Commission. This transaction should be no different. I urge all of them to resolve their differences as soon as possible.”

At a period of time when Democrats in Washington are stealing the spotlight, one Republican today may have caught the attention of John McCain and Rudy Guiliani.

Immediately afterward, McDowell’s former employer, CompTel CEO Earl Comstock, issued a statement: “Now that this matter has been resolved, COMPTEL hopes that AT&T will finally engage in forthright negotiations on conditions to address the serious competitive harms raised by this merger,” Comstock wrote. “It is time to make a decision on this transaction. Whether it is approved or is denied is now largely a function of AT&T’s willingness to address the legitimate public interest concerns raised by the largest telecom merger in history. We should know soon whether AT&T is serious about this merger or not.”

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A short circuit for cellular E911

It’s very likely that when you call 911 from your cell phone in an emergency, the operator on the other end won’t automatically know your location.

This is despite the fact that most U.S. mobile phone companies have met a Federal Communications Commission mandate to provide location information to 911 operators for millions of wireless subscribers. After years of work, the wireless phone industry is still a long way from full deployment of what is known as enhanced 911 service, or E911.

With the exception of only a few companies, wireless carriers have met obligations set forth by the FCC to get their networks and phones ready to provide the service to 95 percent of their subscribers.

“Significant progress is being made. It could all be happening more quickly, but there are a lot of things to be done to make sure this works.”
–Roger Hixson, technical issues director for NENA

But getting the carriers to support location technology only solves half the problem. The other half requires getting the nation’s 6,140 emergency call centers or Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) outfitted with the technology and databases to make use of this location information. So far, progress on that front is taking longer than many in the safety community had hoped.

About 69 percent of the 6,140 call centers have implemented the final phase for E911, according to the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, a group that promotes 911 research, planning, training and education. These call centers cover about 80 percent of the U.S. population.

“Significant progress is being made,” said Roger Hixson, technical issues director for NENA. “It could all be happening more quickly, but there are a lot of things to be done to make sure this works. Getting the carriers ready was a long process, and finding the funding and coordinating the local PSAPs is also going to take some time.”

The FCC has mapped out compliance to E911 in two phases. Phase 1 means the caller’s number is displayed for the dispatcher, so the dispatcher can dial back if the call is dropped. Phase 2 means the caller’s approximate location is displayed or mapped so a dispatcher can easily direct emergency personnel.

The FCC estimates that of the 200 million calls made to 911 each year, about a third of them are from callers using a mobile phone. In many communities, over half of 911 calls are placed from cell phones. With more than 220 million wireless subscribers in the nation, it makes sense that a growing number of emergency calls would come from cell phones. Roughly 30 percent of people who bought a cell phone in the past 12 months did so for emergencies, according to Consumer Reports.

Making sure that call centers are ready to accept location information for these emergency calls is critical, say experts. Callers using wireless phones are more likely than callers from a landline phone to not know where they are when they’re calling for help.

Even though many state and county governments know the rewards of implementing such systems quickly, it can be difficult to come up with the money and navigate the politics to make sure the implementation happens.

Hixson said upgrading a single PSAP to accept calls with location information could cost between $150,000 and $200,000. If databases that hold information about local highways or the area’s topography haven’t been built and correlated with other emergency databases, the cost could soar to $1 million per PSAP, he said.

As of October, every state except Missouri had passed legislation to fund E911 deployment and maintenance. This compares with five years ago when 10 states did not have funding in place for E911.

But even with most states’ E911 funding in place, it will take time before the funds are built up enough to begin upgrades. The way E911 funding works is that states approve a tax or a surcharge attached to wireless customers’ bills. Without legislative approval, this tax often can’t be levied.

Once the funds are in place it can still take over a year to implement the technology, Hixson said. First, local officials need to spend three or four months planning the implementation. Then it could take another four to six months to actually put the technology in place and test it.

Some PSAPs are operated and staffed by local police and fire departments, while others are run by counties. The success of these implementations is largely due to how well agencies within the county and state cooperate. Ultimately, this affects how quickly states are able to roll out services.

For example, North Dakota was one of the first states to have E911 fully implemented throughout the state. But its neighbor South Dakota is lagging. In fact, state officials there recently commissioned a $50,000 study to examine the state’s 911 services, according to a recent Associated Press story.

“We were very fortunate to have an association of counties working on this issue early and making the commitment to have E911 up and running,” said Tony Clark, president of the North Dakota Public Service Commission. “They created a very strong, centralized program. But I know it can be tough to get this done. It takes a lot of political will.”

Because of these issues, it’s difficult for people to know when they can expect emergency dispatchers to know their location when they call 911 for assistance. Experts say the best thing to do is to assume that the call center will have no information about your location.

“Most people don’t care about 911 until they have to use it,” Hixson said. “And when they want to use it, the expectation is that E911 will be universal. But the truth is, we’re still years from that.”