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.

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Companies: comcast

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Comments on “Comcast Now Trying To Claim That Delivering Just TV To Third-Party Set Top Boxes 'Not Feasible'”

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36 Comments
DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Ah, but Comcast can CONTROL those boxes under contract terms, in order to award those manufacturers with a contract to build Comcast’s craptastical boxes.

That’s why everyone wants a comcast box instead of their own, cheaper box, with more features.

It’s all about control. If just any ol’ riff raff could build boxes, how wold Comcast be able to abuse you with ad tracking, viewing tracking, and maybe even listening in to what is going on in the room where you are watching. Not to mention the possibility of building a camera into the telescreen, or um, set top box.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The cable box industry doesn’t need the FCC’s prodding, just inform more people about streaming devices.

Informing people about streaming only makes them mad, when they discover all the road blocks the ISP’s are placing in the way of actually using streaming services. That will likely speed up regulatory action.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Catastrophic failure due to momentum and threshold

It is in Comcast’s best interest to open up its set top boxes. If they fail to begin competing now, sometime in the next 5 to 10 years, there will be a threshold that is reached where they are losing customers at an accelerating rate and they will begin panicking and making rushed and very poor business choices. Cord cutting, VR and other new technologies, will all come into play.

Much like all disruptive events, denial, doubt that things are changing, and monopoly business practices will lead to a rapid collapse in profitability, as they struggle to keep up with a rapidly changing business landscape. The only choice they have is to get ahead of this and be proactive. And they need to do this way before someone comes up with and open source (hardware and software) standard for content delivery. If they are rushing to play catch up at that point they are doomed.

Anonymous Coward says:

The more I sit back and watch, the more it looks like these big industry corporations act like actual children.

First they get caught doing something bad or are asked to share and throw an absolute temper tantrum. Them they go around telling all their friends how TERRIBLE their parent/guardian is. Then they try to bargain their punishment with more favorable terms. Then they promise and plead that they’ll never do it again if they could just get away with it this one time. Finally they begrudgingly accept their punishment and everyone is better off for it.

Skeeter says:

Malicious or Incompetent?

When it comes to cable hardware, I’m not really sure Comcast’s statement of ‘impossible’ is that far off the truth. I say this, because if you have ever had any electronics that required the CableCARD (M-Card), you know that the card rents, just like the set-top boxes do, and that with a configured device, the card is like a ‘mini-settop-box’ itself, empowering your device (DVR, Computer, whatever) to get encoded cable signals and decode them. Well, I’m here to tell you, they have made encryption so nightmarish for even their own use, that it is very-seldom they can get their own rental aircards to work! I went through 3 of them, along with about 10-hours of their technician on-site trying to ‘debug it’, to get the aircard(s)to work.
In the end, we shook hands, he apologized, and left. NO hard sell, no argument, and his words were resounding, ‘we seldom can get them to work right, I don’t know why we carry them, when we have the trouble we do with the cable boxes, anyhow’.
Bottom line: They’ve just about engineered themselves out of their own level of competency on their own hardware. What EVER in the world makes you think they can debug their aircard, sitting in a Hauppage DVR you bought that has different configuration parameters than their own technicians have ever seen before?
It’s not amazing that the elephant is on the roof, and the secondary consideration is how the elephant got there. Keep focus on getting the elephant down, first, then we can watch him and keep him off the roof from now on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Then do something feasible

Ok Comcast. I will give you the benefit of the doubt just for the sake of this argument, even though everyone know you are flat out lying. What is feasible is that you sell me the box at a reasonable cost. No, 4,000$ dollars (this is what I have paid in rent so far for 3 shitty boxes) is not reasonable. Will your new argument be that ‘it is not technically feasible for us to deliver TV to our boxes if the customer owns them’?

F-U Comcast!

Anonymous Coward says:

Slight disagreement

Karl, I don’t completely agree with this statement:

“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.”

I think that allowing the customer to use their own box will decelerate the shift from legacy cable systems. I don’t mind my bill from them for the most part, but the part the just burns my cookies is the monthly rental on some cheap boxes. Unbeknownst to the cable companies this push by the FCC could end up giving them a couple more years of relevance.

ntlgnce says:

He missed the point Comcast is trying to make.

Comcast is worried about those third party stb’s ( set top boxes). Becoming virtual DVR’s with the ability to record anything, Burn it to a DVD, and the end user can resell or re stream the content. Comcast would NOT have control of the copyright if the third party stbs are allowed.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: He missed the point Comcast is trying to make.

If that is actually Comcast’s concern, then it can be easily addressed in ways that still allow third party STBs. This is a familiar use case for which there are numerous solutions, both technical and legislative.

That’s why it’s obvious to me that this isn’t Comcast’s concern at all. The only concern I can think of that actually makes any sense is that Comcast doesn’t want the gravy train of rental fees to dry up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: He missed the point Comcast is trying to make.

“Comcast would NOT have control of the copyright if the third party stbs are allowed.”

And exactly why SHOULD Comcast have control of copyrighted material being produced, and consumed by two independent third parties, that may have NO contractual relationship with Comcast whatsoever?

I understand Comcast saying that this will break their network. It will. They made sure that it would. This is not an accident.

What your looking at is a situation where sweetheart deals with the media cartels required the cable cabal to build networks in ways that are inefficient and restrictive. Engineers don’t constrain their upgrade path by default. They only do it when they are commanded to. So it’s a manufactured crisis.

If we use the CARB electric car initiative and GM as a road map for how this progresses, the outlook isn’t good. GM executives killed their own company instead of playing nice with CA just out of childish spite. If you think Comcast is led by a more mature executive staff, you haven’t followed this company much.

The more these guys screw around, the more the shareholders should be running for the hills. Open networking all the way to the CPE will happen. The only question is whether Comcast will still be a unified company when it does. They have entrenched themselves for a decade into a loosing position, and are now fighting to preserve sunk costs.

Breaking them up sooner is better. The longer this fight persists, the more damage it is going to do to the economy as a whole. You cannot fix this without breaking them up. Content, or carrier. Pick ONE.

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