FCC’s Latest Proposal: Make Cable Available as an App


The FCC has taken on the task in the past year of looking at cable boxes, part of a huge cable industry with monopolies in many areas and prices that are often viewed as too high. In addition to just paying for access to content, users pay a hefty premium on the cable boxes. These cable boxes can be made of cheap components and run poor operating systems, but are still expensive to rent. The FCC has spawned the #unlockthebox campaign that will give users more choice on how they consume this content.

Back in February, when the sugestion was first posed, there was a lot of feedback that came from tech companies like Google, cable companies like Comcast, and many others. There were a lot of details that weren’t clear. For example, was this going to be like the CableCard, an expensive and ineffective standard that took ten years to realize? When users owned a third-party box, who collected and owned viewership data? Would this prevent many smaller channels from being purchased and cause them to close?

Comcast was one of the bigger voices against this policy. They argued that the current cable box technology was getting stale, and any government mandate to keep it alive would stifle innovation and prevent Comcast from adapting. Comcast argued that apps were the future.

In light of the success of the apps-based model in the marketplace, the far-reaching government technical mandate being currently proposed by the FCC is unnecessary. The FCC’s proposed set-top box mandate threatens to undermine this highly-dynamic marketplace, create substantial costs and consumer harms… all in an effort to achieve what apps are already delivering for consumers.
Mark Hess, SVP at Comcast

Comcast's set-top box system is proprietary and closed to developers and hobbyists
Comcast’s set-top box system is proprietary and closed to developers and hobbyists

They partnered with Roku and NVIDIA to put the Xfinity app on these devices. This was meant to appease the FCC and probably end any further talks of regulations. However, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently penned an op-ed in the LA Times that takes this idea to heart. The new rules for cable companies will be to make their content available as an app, complying with universal search, without extra cost.

The Op-Ed

Over the past seven months, the Commission conducted an open proceeding where we heard from pay-TV providers, programmers, device and software manufacturers, consumers groups, and, most important, the American people. We listened.

The editorial begins with talking about our golden age of television, but our issues with trying to control the content we consume. It’s great to watch previous seasons of a show on Netflix, but when we want to watch newer episodes, we’re stuck with a single cable box for an expensive price. The FCC now is mandating cable companies create apps for users. These apps will have to be available for no additional cost (beyond the cable subscription).

If you want to watch Comcast’s content through your Apple TV or Roku, you can. If you want to watch DirectTV’s offerings through your Xbox, you can.

It’s not entirely clear what platforms will have to be supported. Apple TV, Roku, Android TV, and Xbox all seem obvious, but will the Raspberry Pi also be a required platform? There’ll likely be some sort of web browser component as well which will be a catch-all for any smaller systems (assuming they have Internet and a web browser). HTML5 has been a growing standard for providing secured video on the web, and it will be better than using an already-outdated Flash player.

The Verge reports that “TV providers only have to provide apps once a platform has shipped at least 5 million units in the US in the previous year, which means new streaming boxes will have to reach a large distribution before they qualify to receive apps.”

One of the biggest benefits consumers will see is integrated search. The rules would require all pay-TV providers to enable the ability for consumers to search for pay-TV content alongside other sources of content. Just type in the name of a movie, and a list will come up with all the places it is scheduled for broadcast and where it can be streamed (like Amazon Prime or Hulu).

Integrated search also means expanded access to programming created by independent and diverse voices on the same platform as your pay-TV providers. Consumers will more easily find content even if it’s not on the pay-TV service to which they subscribe.

You can search for the content first and see the providers next.
You can search for the content first and see the providers next.

Integrated search will be mandated. Android TV has a universal search option, where I can search for “Breaking Bad” and see results on Netflix and perhaps rentable on Google Play for a dollar. Now I can see that show is playing live on AMC through my Comcast app. It’s an integration that creates a fantastic blend of live and on-demand content which has been greatly wanted. Instead of Comcast allowing a small video company to provide content on-demand or through one of their few apps, consumers can use an open platform with the software and video content that they want. This could be a great thing not only for users, but for small video apps which have not added universal search yet.

To ensure that all copyright and licensing agreements will remain intact, the delivery of pay-TV programming will continue to be overseen by pay-TV providers from end-to-end. The proposed rules also maintain important protections regarding emergency alerting, accessibility and privacy.

An app is encapsulated, allowing the cable provider to control the experience aside from search. Leaving them in control of the delivery mechanism will allow cable providers to keep their content secure and not stolen. This could mean the app will block rooted users or those using screen recorders from accessing content. Additionally, it’s not clear how this will integrate with Live Channels, if at all. Cable companies may not want users to leave their experience.

Additionally, certain types of features like emergency alerting may be better left to the operating system. Will Comcast be able to access an API to send emergency broadcasts to the system? It’s something that exists on phones today through the carriers. Will those emergency broadcast messages appear on top of your content even in apps like Netflix?

Large pay-TV providers, which serve more than 90% of subscribers, will have two years to fully implement the new requirements. Medium-sized providers will have an additional two years to comply, and the smallest providers would be exempt.

You’re probably excited, but perhaps also skeptical as to when this will actually happen. Wheeler states that large companies, Comcast and Verizon perhaps, will have two years to implement this software and publish it. For slightly smaller companies, they will have four years total. Smaller companies would not be required, but the ability to watch TV on your phone or smart TV is a strong marketing feature and may cause smaller companies to do it just to keep up.

What’s Next?

There’s a lot of interesting things that were mentioned here, and there’s plenty that can still be discussed. Removing the cable box can save consumers a lot of money in renting cable boxes, but will consumers really save money? Comcast may see their set-top box rentals drop and replace that with a rise in cable subscriptions. It could ultimately increase the number of cord-cutters though, as users will have a relatively similar experience with or without cable on their third-party device.

Google Fiber has its own set-top boxes, which don't run Android TV
Google Fiber has its own set-top boxes, which don’t run Android TV

It’s also not clear whether this will have any impact on companies creating their own set-top boxes as was proposed before. Google expressed interest in creating alternative devices and their Fiber set-top boxes are beginning to look more similar to Android TV.

The mandate requires cable providers make their content available in an app, but there is no mention of supporting broader device-level features. I’m thinking of Android TV’s Live Channels and DVR features. While it’d be great to have support from our cable provider, that may not happen. Instead, it may remain a siloed app.

Either way, the rules don’t appear to have been received well. Comcast executive Sena Fitzmaurice says, “While we appreciate that Chairman Wheeler has abandoned his discredited proposal to break apart cable and satellite services, his latest tortured approach is equally flawed. He claims that his new proposal builds on the marketplace success of apps, but in reality, it would stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing an overly complicated government licensing regime and heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space.”

Android TV PM Sascha Prüter says the app approach is imperfect. “Apps are not the ideal way to transport content. They create a silo and once you leave that silo to watch other content, you are in another silo.” Instead, there should be universal ways to recommend and find content. Perhaps the set-top box could detect low engagement and offer something better. Sascha suggested “a scenario where people could wear sensors that provide information allowing their TV to predict what kind of content they are in the mood for.”

The new FCC rules seem to have solved the earlier complaints that were raised about unlocking the box, but will this new approach help continue the golden age of TV? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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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