Comcast Now Trying To Claim That Delivering Just TV To Third-Party Set Top Boxes 'Not Feasible'
from the nobody-really-believes-you dept
We’ve talked a lot about how the FCC is trying to open up the set top box market to additional competition, breaking open cable’s monopoly control of the hardware, while driving down set top prices and improving gear quality. Given this would kill $21 billion in annual set top rental fee revenue and expose customers to more streaming options than ever before, the cable industry has been engaged in raging histrionics to try and shut down the effort and protect the status quo.
So far, this plan has involved whining, urging lawmakers (most of them about as well-liked as the cable industry) to also whine, while pushing an endless ocean of incredibly misleading editorials in news outlets nationwide claiming the FCC’s plan is going to hurt puppies and rip gigantic holes in the space-time continuum.
But in an added wrinkle, Comcast is now trying to tell the FCC that offering just the company’s programming to third-party set tops isn’t just a horrible, vicious, no-good idea — it’s also technically impossible. Under the details of the FCC’s plan revealed so far (pdf), cable providers will be required to pass on just the programming — using any consensus standard or copy protection it sees fit — to third-party set tops for integration in those devices’ GUIs. But according to an FCC filing detailing Comcast’s recent meetings with the agency, Comcast is now claiming that doing this is “not feasible”:
“We discussed that Comcast?s set-top boxes and Xfinity TV apps (like other MVPD apps) include software code that manages requests for programing and communications between the box/app and where the programming is cached on the network to ensure the programming is delivered, and done so efficiently. In addition, this network code minimizes the risks of degradation to the service due to bandwidth shortages and congestion, and also enables Comcast to support rapidly evolving entertainment technologies, such as accessibility features and advanced video technologies.
…In response to questions from Commission staff, we explained that running our network code directly on third-party devices without our application was not feasible for a variety of reasons, including, among other things, that MVPDs deploy very different network infrastructures so that the code that one MVPD develops for interacting with its network differs from the code that other MVPDs would develop; MVPD network code is regularly updated to accommodate network and service changes, and corresponding changes would be required in the third-party device (or app); and that programmers and content owners require a trusted execution environment as a key element of a strong content security and content presentation regimen.”
In layman’s terms, that’s Comcast using convoluted technical jargon to argue that its code, ad tracking systems, and apps are so damned important, things will fall apart if they’re not included alongside Comcast content on third-party boxes. The problem with that narrative is that the FCC has been eyeing set top box reform for the better part of a decade, and countless cable companies — as well as companies that build set top boxes (ranging from TiVo to telecom-industry nemesis Google) — have informed the agency that it’s perfectly plausible to have cable companies deliver just the programming.
Comcast just doesn’t want to, because the shift the FCC is proposing would demolish a cornerstone of the cable industry’s walled garden and accelerate the inevitable shift away from legacy cable systems.
The cable giant recently unveiled a new proposal that would deliver Comcast’s cable content to third-party set top and smart TV vendors in the form of apps, a project Comcast argues makes the FCC’s plan unnecessary:
“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, and will take years to develop — only to be likely outdated by the time it reaches the marketplace ? all in an effort to achieve what apps are already delivering for consumers.”
But the FCC doesn’t envision a future where third-party set tops are delivered to streaming devices, because that future’s already here and has done nothing to loosen cable’s monopoly over the traditional set top itself. What the FCC envisions are set top boxes that cleanly integrate cable industry programming directly, uniformly managed by the set top box’s software, not the cable industry or their apps. In response, FCC boss Tom Wheeler stated that Comcast’s effort simply “proves our point that you can take a third-party device, put set-top box functionality into it, and protect copyright and the economic ecosystem.”
In other words, the FCC knows what it’s proposing is technically possible. It also knows that nervous Comcast executives are just trying to retain something vaguely resembling control as the specter of real TV (and now set top box) competition finally looms just over the horizon.