Leading telcos in the United States have come together with the Consumer Electronics Association to announce a series of principles designed to ensure interoperability of consumer devices that connect to internet protocol video networks.

The Consumer Electronics Association, AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon say that consumers will benefit if they have the flexibility to attach a variety of consumer electronics devices to video services and consumer home networks.

“IP-enabled video networks will provide consumers across the nation with a revolutionary new way to access their favourite video programs when and where they want,” said Gary Shapiro, the president and chief executive of the CEA. “We believe these principles will provide solid guidelines and help support an environment in which IP video can flourish.”

AT&T welcomed a framework to enable the commercial availability of devices that consumers can use in their home to view IP-enabled services.

Verizon said that the interests of consumers are better served by such voluntary efforts than by government regulation.

At a press conference held during the CEA Entertainment Technology Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., they proposed five principles to facilitate a retail market for consumer electronics products.

Nationwide compatibility
While technical and economic realities may preclude nationwide uniformity across networks, the operators call for sufficient communality to enable manufacturers to design products that will operate across service provider platforms. They also say that beyond protecting against electronic or physical harm to the network, nothing should prevent consumers from accessing services across personal home networks.

Open standards
The operators call for open standards, which they define as those developed in a forum that allows meaningful participation by all interested parties, requires consensus, and openly discloses licensing terms which are at least reasonable and non-discriminatory, although there is notably no requirement for them to be ‘fair’. They observe that standards created by bodies accredited by ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, meet these criteria.

Reasonable licensing terms
Reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing terms are called for and these should not impose unrelated requirements on licensees, such as the inclusion or exclusion of other features in products that are separate from those related to accessing services provided by the operator.

Reasonable testing and certification procedures
The operators call for reasonable testing and certification procedures which should be transparent and focussed on ensuring that devices conform to the applicable specifications, do not cause electronic or physical harm to the video service network, and do not enable unauthorised receipt of service.

Reasonable terms of service for consumers
Service terms and conditions should allow consumers to choose among various consumer electronics products to access their video service as long as they do not cause harm to the network or enable unauthorised receipt of service.

It may be observed that all the operators involved are either using or proposing to use Microsoft software to deliver their IPTV services. They probably have more to gain than lose from achieving cross-compatibility with a wide range of consumer electronics devices.

Although internet protocol television and video services are based on a number of well-defined standards, there is currently little compatibility between different services in terms of common specifications. Operators are generally left to define their own requirements, and consequently there is currently no single set of specifications that will ensure conformance and compatibility.

Cable television in the United States has traditionally been dominated by a limited number of vendors supplying set-top boxes. The cable industry organisation CableLabs has worked hard to develop interoperable standards that will ultimately support a retail market for compatible consumer products.

To compete effectively with cable, the telcos need to ensure that they are not competing against each other and fragmenting the potential market for consumer products. Enabling consumer choice will also stimulate competition in the retail market, driving down costs.