The Future of the Cable Box is in Jeopardy

The battle of the future of set-top boxes is one worth paying close attention to. Whether they are unlocked, or ditched altogether, we will ultimately be able to deliver a better experience to our clients. Either way we win.
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The future of the lowly cable box is in jeopardy. Back in February the Federal Communications Commission announced a proposal aimed at providing consumers with increased choice and competition in the pay TV set-top box market. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), led by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, was quickly dubbed Unlock the Box.

Under the proposed legislation pay TV companies would be forced to allow third-party development of set-top boxes. Backers of the bill argue that cable companies, currently free of any competition, are gouging customers through bloated rental fees on antiquated hardware. By forcing pay TV companies to adopt specifications set by an open-standards body, the FCC hopes that third-party manufacturers will bring to market superior set-top boxes, at lower prices, to consumers.

Given the far-reaching implications of such a proposal, it’s no surprise that the FCC’s move has been met with resistance. Both African American and Hispanic organizations have argued that minority programming will be negatively impacted. These channels, given their smaller audience size, depend largely on carefully negotiated terms with providers. Minority groups argue that these terms, which dictate issues such as channel placement, advertising, and bundling, are likely to be jeopardized by the entrance of third-party set-top box makers.

A somewhat more surprising opponent surfaced when Roku’s CEO and founder Anthony Wood published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal speaking out against the FCC’s proposal. Wood’s argument is that the internet is already forcing cable companies to adapt to the proliferation of streaming apps. One need not look far for an example, given Roku’s recently announced partnership with Comcast.

But to no one’s surprise, the loudest opponents to the FCC’s move have been the cable companies. The Future of TV Coalition, a group made up largely of cable and satellite TV providers, has offered a counter proposal of its own, cleverly dubbed Ditch the Box. This proposal would require pay TV companies with more than 1 million subscribers to create an open architecture HTML5 app, allowing consumers access content from a compatible device of their own choosing.

Proponents argue that Ditch the Box would achieve the spirit of the FCC’s proposal, while protecting the carefully negotiated copyright terms between creators and pay TV providers. Current indications are that the FCC is receptive to this proposal. Press secretary of the FCC Kim Hart said of the proposal that “Chairman Wheeler is heartened that the industry has adopted the primary goal of our proposal, to promote greater competition and choice for consumers, and agree it is achievable.”

Wherever the legislation lands, one thing is clear: the future of the cable box as we know it is uncertain. For home technology professionals, this is unequivocally welcome news. Long the bane of our profession, cable boxes are notoriously unreliable, difficult to integrate, and long devoid of any meaningful innovation. The battle of the future of set-top boxes is one worth paying close attention to. Whether they are unlocked, or ditched altogether, we will ultimately be able to deliver a better experience to our clients. Either way we win.

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