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Why the Future of Cord Cutting Is Murkier Than Ever

Life as a cord cutter can be pretty great today, but potentially high costs and the threat of data caps may cause people to think twice about ditching cable.

This is part of The Motherboard Guide to Cord Cutting. Follow along here.

Here's something that would have sounded absolutely crazy just a few years ago: You can now watch television channels like CNN, ESPN, and HBO with only a smartphone and a wireless internet connection, opening up the possibility of catching highlights of last night's baseball game on SportsCenter on your morning commute and keeping tabs on the presidential election with Wolf Blitzer while wrapping up lunch. All this without having to fork over $100+ a month to the likes of Time Warner Cable and Comcast for cable.

Things could hardly be better if you're a cord cutter, or someone who's ditched cable for internet-based offerings like Netflix and Hulu. And with services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, you have access to a swath of halfway decent channels for as little as $20 per month, and with devices like Roku and Chromecast—not to mention the smartphone you take everywhere—you can binge watch everything from House of Cards to Game of Thrones (and itsantecedent Rome) in the comfort of your own home or, say, while waiting for a bus.

The question now, of course, is what comes next.

Being able to pull up the latest episode of House Hunters on your phone is one thing, but are we ever going to reach the cord cutting ideal of being able to pay for individual channels, a la carte? What role, if any, will free over-the-air television play in the cord cutter's television diet? Will the slow introduction of 4K video content prompt cable companies to widely implement data caps, effectively slamming down on the "free ride" of unlimited home broadband? And what happens if cable companies, gasp, actually decide to lower prices?

One thing's for sure: The next few years are going to be a time of great experimentation when it comes to television delivery.

"Here's the thing: At some point you're never really going to cut the cord because you need internet," Scott Olechowski, co-founder and chief product officer at Plex, told Motherboard. According to Olechowski, whose app lets users view on their TV or mobile device videos and photos stored on their computer (think DVD rips and the like), the platonic ideal of cord cutting—saying sayonara to Comcast or Time Warner Cable—may be misguided here in 2016. "The idea of cord cutting used to mean, 'Man, my cable bill is super high,' but now it means, 'I cut my internet and my cable'? Well, you can't do that!"

If you're Olechowski, whose day-to-day job entails trying to figure out where all this cord cutting stuff is going, the threat caused by broadband data caps isn't some theoretical, edge case concern. "I've got a guy who works for me down in Atlanta [Plex is based in Silicon Valley but some employees work remotely]," he said, "and [Comcast is] starting to implement caps." This, reasoned Olechowski, means cord cutting could quickly become "much more difficult to justify" compared to just biting the bullet and paying for cable.

"Generally speaking, I don't think you can win as a business by fighting your customers," added MightyTV co-founder and CEO Brian Adams. Adams, whose startup created a mobile app that lets users easily find what's available to watch across their different streaming services, is also tasked with figuring out where the future of television consumption is going, and in his view the introduction of data caps would merely "create the opportunity for Google Fiber or somebody else to come in" and provide unlimited data.

It's not only small startups like Plex and MightyTV that are worried about the potential for data caps to wreak havoc on all the cord-cutting fun—as well as their business.

"If the bandwidth provider says, 'I'm capping everyone except the services that I provide,' that's hard," said Ben Weinberger, chief product officer at Sling TV, the Dish Network-owned streaming service that offers about two dozen channels for $20 per month. "The reality is, if you're a [streaming video] service, whether it's Sling TV, Netflix, Hulu, etc., nobody would want their service being put at a competitive disadvantage." After all, you might think twice about binge watching an entire season of Seinfeld on Hulu if you're worried about being charged by the gigabyte.

As it turns out, however, short of swearing off video entertainment entirely (an unlikely scenario given that the average American ingests nearly three hours of TV per day, according to the Department of Labor) the future of television consumption may look a lot like its past—provided you know where to look.

"There's one section of people that don't really realize that antennas are still a thing," Chris Brantner, co-founder of cord cutting news website CutCableToday.com, told Motherboard. According to Brantner, who regularly fields questions from readers about cord cutting advice, plenty of people are completely unaware of the fact that, with an inexpensive antenna from somewhere like Amazon or Best Buy, you can pull in everything from The Voice to Sunday NFL football without any involvement from Comcast or Time Warner Cable. Of course, while the big networks like ABC and NBC are broadcast over-the-air in crystal clear HD, there's still the small matter of having to be present live.

"To me, the antenna is nice, but having a streaming service that could bring it all in" would be the ideal setup, said Brantner.

Already, however, there are devices that get us close to Brantner's vision.

Dave Zatz, who has covered cord cutting and related topics for the news website ZatzNotFunny.com since 2005, stressed to Motherboard that devices like the Tivo Roamio and Tablo HD are able to record over-the-air broadcasts for later viewing, no different than your cable company's DVR. Some of the devices can even stream recorded shows to your mobile device—echoing the behavior of now-dead startup Aereo.

Zatz caused something of a stir among cord cutters earlier in April when he reported that Sling TV was developing a set-top box that would be able to accept over-the-air television signals. This, according to Zatz, would enable users to browse their local broadcasts networks like ABC and NBC using the Sling TV interface, putting these channels alongside the likes of ESPN and Food Network in a cable-like user interface. "You'd have one app, one interface, and one guide," explained Zatz, noting that such a set-top box might be particularly attractive to people who haven't yet cut the cord.

As it turns out, cord cutting is still somewhat on the small side, with the research firm eMarketer noting that, through the end of 2015, a total of 4.9 million US households had cut the cord. Nearly 5 million households is nothing to sneeze at, but it's a far cry from the 100 million or so US households that still subscribe to cable or satellite. But regardless of what happens to the television landscape, you can bet that the cable companies aren't going to sit on the sidelines and watch their profits evaporate overnight—even if you're able to wring a bit more control over what you see, when you see it, and where you see it.

"I honestly believe we could be heading into a world where everyone thinks they're cutting the cord, unquote, saving a bunch of money, unquote, and we end up paying actually a lot more for less," said Plex's Olechowski, noting how quickly costs can escalate once you start subscribing to multiple streaming video services. "But maybe by becoming our own programmers that's better."

"Netflix is great: $10 a month and no commercials," he added. "But once you live a life without commercials, going back to cable with ads is a shitshow. I can't even handle it."