The FCC Keeps Running Into Opposition With Its Plan to Open Up Cable Boxes

Six months after revealing its intentions, the FCC continues to face opposition to its plan to let you chose your own cable box.

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Aug 16 2016, 12:00pm

Have you looked at your cable bill lately?

These days, one item jumps out more than any other; after all, it's not necessarily the service itself that's overpriced these days if you get a bundle (and you use your landline phone plan). Cable box rental fees, however, are out of control. Some providers have even hiked rates past the $10 per box per month mark, so the hardware costs more than a Netflix subscription. And that doesn't even include DVR fees! If you buy a TiVo or build a home theater PC, you can buy a tuner that uses a CableCARD, but the card itself still has to be rented from the cable company, even if the price may be less than that of a box.

There has to be a better way to do this.

The FCC agrees, and in February, it started to make the steps to push forward a proposal for an alternative. "Instead of mandating a government-specific standard that might impede innovation," its statement explained, "the Commission recommends that these three streams be available to the creators of competitive solutions using any published, transparent format that conforms to specifications set by an independent, open standards body." The cable companies, not wanting to abandon a source for $19.5 billion inannual revenue, have their own proposal, as well. Their proposal is built around "enforcing an industry-wide commitment to develop and deploy video 'apps' that all large MVPDs would build to open HTML5 web standards."

But what does that exactly mean? For starters, who would ensure who makes what apps for what devices? It's not like, for example, Roku's devices have HTML5 web browsers, after all. When speaking to Motherboard, John Bergmayer, Senior Staff Attorney at Public Knowledge, told us that there are more than just technological hurdles. "How does it actually get on this device, and how does it work, and so forth, they're not really guaranteeing that these apps will have the same programming as is on set top boxes, much less the same features. That's giving quite an advantage to the cable box over the competitive solution, to where I think it is almost a proposal that is seemingly designed to fail."

The only idea that really makes sense is to establish a standardized protocol for an internet protocol-based cable TV solution that various apps can then handle in their own ways with their own interfaces. The smaller cable companies have even objected to the cable company proposal would cost them twice as much to implement as the FCC proposal.

"I can't vouch for their specific numbers," Bergmayer added, "but one of the reasons why we supported the initial approach, to just send video and metadata to third party devices and let them handle the presentation of programming to customers, is that it's much simpler to support. [Whether] for cable companies, satellite companies, and so on, to the point we put on demos of it working back in December. It's not really a technological lift to support something like this, in fact, the cable companies already use similar technology internally."

Which way will it go? It's not necessarily looking good since the US Copyright Office is buying into the cable industry's obfuscation over the other proposals enabling piracy. The industry is going to fight to keep from losing those billions in revenue: Even before most cable companies went all-digital, they still made you rent a box to get scrambled content like HBO, Showtime, and pay-per-view channels, which you couldn't get by plugging the coaxial cable into your TV. With their money and influence, getting them to let that go is going to be difficult. But, as Bergmayer notes, there is one wrinkle that means that, if the FCC really wanted to get their way, they could." The FCC is directed by statute to promote a competitive market for devices that can access all of the same content that someone subscribes to."

Of course, there are a lot of things that the FCC is supposed to do.