Is HDTV on Cable in Peril?

It’s strange that one acronym — IP — covers two different terms that both stand to have a big impact on HDTV content on cable systems. IP stands for Internet Protocol, and it’s shaping up as a competitor to cable; as more and more people get high-speed broadband Internet access, delivery of HDTV content over IP becomes more practical. But IP also stands for “intellectual property” and that may pose a more immediate threat for cable companies.

We already have experienced the loss of HDTV content over cable when local broadcast television station owners insisted on licensing fees from cable companies that want to carry their programming. This came to a head in many areas this past winter leading up to the SuperBowl. An article this week in EE Times raises a more ominous issue, however; it may be that cable companies are in violation of patent law by distributing HDTV content.

Rembrandt Technologies is a Pennsylvania company that has acquired eight U.S. patents that control various aspects of digital TV. These apparently were purchased from the assets of AT&T and Lucent Technologies. The patents may apply to the digital distribution of data over cable systems. Rembrandt has filed suits against Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Charter, and Cablevision. If the cable companies cannot come to terms with Rembrandt, these suits will go to trial. And if a settlement cannot be reached and the courts rule in Rembrandt’s favor, it’s conceivable that injunctions may be issued to prevent the cable companies from distributing HDTV content.

We likely will have to wait and see what the courts decide on these issues, but it could be a disruptive development for the cable industry.