Most people in the United States who pay for TV have to use a set-top-box rented from their cable provider. In February, the Federal Communications Commission voted to adopt an “UnblockTheBox” plan that could change that by requiring TV providers to open up the data streams so that you could access content on something like a Roku, Chromecast, or Apple TV.
But the cable, satellite, and other TV providers are fighting back… saying they’re already starting to do that and that the proposed regulations are unclear, costly, and possibly even dangerous.
The debate is far from over. The FCC is taking public comments on the project through mid-March and a second comment period (for replies) will run for another 30 days after that… and if the FCC decides to move ahead, TV providers will almost certainly take legal action to stop it.
In this episode of the LPX Show, we take a look at the FCC’s #UnblockTheBox effort… and the industry’s proposed alternative, #EliminateTheBox.
Update 9/8/2016: FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has announced a new compromise that larger adopts the industry’s approach of creating apps that can run on a wide range of platforms including iOS, Android, Roku, and Windows, as well as web apps.
But while the new proposal gives TV providers control over the presentation of their content, it requires them to provide access to their content in universal searches — so users would be able to see on-demand content from Comcast and Netflix in the same search results, for instance.
- Brad Love, senior software engineer at Hauppauge
- Paul Glist, attorney representing the National Cable & Telecommunications Association
- Mari Silbey, senior editor for cable and video at LightReading.com
- Dave Zatz, technology blogger at ZatzNotFunny.com
Special appearances (recorded from an FCC webcast):
- FCC’s “Unlock the Box” page (proposed rule, commissioner statements)
- Read comments that have been submitted to the FCC
- Submit your own comment (use procedure number 16-42)
You can help support the LPX podcast by making a donation to our Patreon campaign.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 33:25 — 22.7MB)
The cable industry is very short-sighted with their slogan — they might push some folks over the edge. I’ve been on an old analog/QAM setup with no box. Recently my cable company has been slowly eliminating that plan and forcing everyone into all digital with a box for every set. it won’t hit my city for a few months, but I #EliminatedTheBox before I had to figure just how much the ‘upgrades’ would cost me.
The only solution I care about looks like what showtime is doing, offering an addon at other services like hulu and Amazon. When I can get Syfy, TNT and USA for a couple extra bucks a month each there, I’ll be a happy camper.
10 to 1 the FCC won’t make anything any better, no matter how good their intentions. On the upside, the worse things get with cable proper, the more other channels will look to hedge with streaming direct to consumers (no cable login required). A la carte.
Good show. 🙂 I look forward to more.
Brad Linder says
Yeah, that’s the question I posed to Mari — but she’s skeptical and figures if enough people do this and stop paying $100/month for cable, odds are the providers will find ways to get their money.
Personally I’m pretty happy with Netflix + Amazon and the occasional Hulu program. But if I ever run out of stuff to watch, I’d consider paying for a few months of HBO or something else and then canceling it once I’m caught up.
I hope I can still do that by the time I run out of stuff to watch… if that ever happens. 🙂
Last I heard, cable TV margins aren’t very big — it’s more of a trojan horse than a serious profit center for the middleman. I read recently that smaller cable providers were dumping some high demand/high cost channels for this very reason and they refer their customers to streaming options because their cable internet margins are huge they don’t mind the trade. Meanwhile competition is brewing on the broadband internet spectrum, however slowly. If cable decides to really stick it to consumers by bloating those margins even more, it won’t end well for them. A lot of things that are localized or underdeveloped now, like Google Fiber, telecom options and wireless options that are mostly for hard to reach rural areas will quickly expand and develop to fill the gap. That part doesn’t worry me. I don’t find the fatalistic cable-dominance-forever argument convincing anymore. If they want to dominate broadband in a future where we can get our TV anywhere, they’ll have to mind their Ps and Qs.
The best thing cable has going for it is inertia (mostly consumer hesitance to change, but also probably some contractual inertia making it harder for some channels to expand their reach). Their power to truly operate as a monopoly is over, all they can do now is slow down access to alternatives so as to accomplish a soft landing.
The FCC proposal sounds like a tv-specific pseudo-internet in some ways (and one which may never materialize — was that Zatz who argued irrelevance near the end?). To which I wonder, why not use the actual already fully developed internet with which even toasters are already compatible? The FCC could make contractual provisions limiting the ability of a channel to offer cable-login-free streaming of its own content unenforceable, killing the less fair part of cable inertia. We can call that provision paid for retroactively by decades of pay-tv monopoly power. You’re welcome, cable. Some people will keep their big bundles, no matter what, and pay even more for them, but so what? If they don’t want to protect their own wallets, why should the rest of us pay (cash or opportunity) to protect what they don’t care about? Some channels might choose not to offer the content (until they syndicate to streaming services at least), and that’s their right, but they’ll quickly be at a disadvantage to channels who do. Without FCC intervention, I suspect the best channels will eventually negotiate their way out of those provisions anyway. But if the FCC wants to actually accomplish something useful, I think that’s their only option.
P.S. I’m only annoyed by an archaic system, not by you or your excellent guests.
Brad Linder says
Hehe, I didn’t take it personally. My goal was to try to take an in-depth look at a rather complicated issue with this episode. Glad to hear it’s given you some food for thought (although I get the feeling you’ve been thinking about some of these issues for a while. 🙂
I’d settle for some CableCo blessed STB purchase options. The ones we are forced to pay overpriced rent on are needlessly crippled with low memory, CPU and are power hungry to boot – last decades technology.
BTW you can’t even rent a cheaper, phone only box from Comcast – they offer exactly ONE STB model for phone + internet !! A forced box bundle, gawd dammit !!
Playstation Vue and Sling are getting close, but not yet the pricing model for channels that I want. Apparently my fav channels are low viewership not covered by ad revenue, but they still haven’t been bundled in a way that I would pay for. So far mostly expensive PPV ($2) per episode!