FCC Announces Plans to Overhaul Cable Boxes, Allow Third-Party Boxes

History of Cable

comcast-set-top

When TV moved from public airwaves to cable, it suddenly became something you could be charged for. Cable companies like Comcast, Verizon, and others would be able to charge you access to this content. What has been the effect of this development decades later? Many people have been put off by the cable industry. These companies, which continue to charge increasing prices to consumers along with sometimes absurd fees, have spurred the growth of the cordcutting movement. People choose to pay for services like Netflix or HBO’s standalone service. Some may even pirate content rather than pay for cable.

Graph of cable subscriptions over time (from Business Insider)
Graph of cable subscriptions over time (from Business Insider)

Comcast, which has been one of the most hated companies in the US, is frequently a monopoly in places they serve. Without any reason to compete, they’ve become a shallow, profit-driven corporation.

Why has this happened? Why hasn’t there been technological innovations to cable boxes, which often are slow, clunky, and lack the advanced capabilities we see from our phones and computers? There has been a lack of competition in the cable industry. The FCC tried to improve innovation in that market in 1996 which established the CableCARD standard. This standard was meant to be used to authenticate paying customers and serve them content. Aside from a few niches, it hasn’t been too successful in the market. Part of that reason may be the organization setting the standards, CableLabs, is a consortium of cable companies that don’t want to open the standard.

Workarounds

Aside from piracy and streaming services, what have people done instead? Google TV tried to overlay their own interface over cable through an HDMI input. It just displayed the content streaming from the box as well as sending commands to the cable box. You had to set up the device by manually selecting your region and cable box so that you received the correct cable guide and remote commands. Xbox One does the same thing with their live TV application.

In both cases, it’s not a great solution but merely a hack. The experience isn’t great as you can only do so many things to simplify the experience. These companies have to collect and maintain their own database of cable boxes and channels instead of being able to receive that data directly. A cable box rental fee is still required, and may cause consumers to pay billions in overcharges.

Google has shifted their strategy to their own cable offering, Google Fiber, while Apple is still reportedly having trouble making deals for a streaming service. Smart set-top boxes like Android TV don’t use HDMI overlaying. You have to switch devices based on the content you want. Products like HDHomeRun bring you live TV, but only if it’s sent through public airwaves. It seems nearly impossible to break up the consortium of these large cable corporations.

Today’s Announcement

FCC chair Tom Wheeler made a pretty significant announcement today, sharing a proposal to create a new framework that would allow third party companies to create and sell their own cable boxes using any cable provider. If this proposal becomes implemented, it would completely change the cable industry.

Tech companies will be able to bring the lastest technology to a single set-top box, allowing for all kinds of streaming services to be available and augmented with standard cable. The price could be dropped significantly, saving consumers from a monthly rental fee. Android TV already has a Live Channels app. Though limited now, it could quickly become much more powerful with cable integration.

It may not be something to be instantly optimistic about. CableCARD was announced in 1996 and wasn’t fully implemented until 2007. This plan has already been met with plenty of blowback as over forty companies have organized to oppose it. Cable providers build their own interfaces for these devices. This includes their own advertisements within the interface and their own data collecting on what users are watching. Losing both of those revenue sources, as well as long money from cable box rentals, would have serious financial ramifications.

Conclusion

The news just came out today, and this is a conversation that will continue over time. Still, there may be some reason to be hopeful that this standard will be successful. There has been a more vocal outcry against these cable companies recently, and FCC chair Tom Wheeler has been successful in other big regulatory battles including net neutrality.

Nick Felker

Nick Felker

Nick Felker is a student Electrical & Computer Engineering student at Rowan University (C/O 2017) and the student IEEE webmaster. When he's not studying, he is a software developer for the web and Android (Felker Tech). He has several open source projects on GitHub (http://github.com/fleker)Devices: Moto G-2013 Moto G-2015, Moto 360, Google ADT-1, Nexus 7-2013 (x2), Lenovo Laptop, Custom Desktop.Although he was an intern at Google, the content of this blog is entirely independent and his own thoughts.

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  • Harriet Russell

    I’m not sure what you mean by a cable box, though if I don’t know whether I have one or not, then I probably don’t. I had to buy something called a cable box years ago, but it was when the broadcast channels stopped sending analog signals. What I have now is a cable modem, and a DTA box from Time Warner, for which I pay a fee every month. They have a monopoly in my town. I’m a hostage to their constantly higher prices, and it makes me furious. I don’t know if this plan would help me, but if it breaks the stranglehold of some of these companies on their technology, I’m all for it. I know there are ways around the standard cable setup, but I just can’t figure them out. I’ve fallen too far behind the current technology to catch up.

    • NF

      Some companies, like Comcast and TWC, rent customers a box that translates the encrypted video signals into live TV. It sounds like you have a cable box.

      This plan should ideally make it easier for a company like Google to build a competing box. Although you’ll still pay TWC for content, the box will probably be cheaper.

      If you want to learn more about cordcutting, there’s a number of articles we’ve written. Android TV is a set-top box platform which makes it easier to access video from the Internet (although not video from your cable provider).