Comcast Continues To Claim It's 'Not Feasible' To Offer Its Programming To Third-Party Cable Boxes

from the real-competition-is-impossible,-sorry dept

We've been talking a lot about how the FCC is pushing a new plan that would force cable providers to provide their programming to third-party hardware vendors. The idea is to put an end to the $21 billion in annual rental fees consumers have to pay for often outdated cable boxes and create some competition in the cable box space, resulting in better, cheaper hardware for everyone. Given it's a hugely profitable monopoly and third-party boxes would be more likely to direct users to competing services, the cable industry has shelled out big bucks for misleading editorials and high test Congressional whining.

Comcast's other, ingenious solution to the FCC's plan? Try and claim that it's not technically possible for Comcast to offer its programming to third-party cable box makers without including all of Comcast's code (and advertising tracking software):
"Comcast says it told the FCC its Xfinity apps "include software code that manages requests for programming 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." Comcast added that "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."
The problem? The FCC says that this is total bullshit, and we're really just talking about providing a few simple APIs:
"A senior FCC official who also spoke to Ars on background disputed Comcast's arguments.

The FCC is aware that TV systems can be either one-way or two-way and that modern systems use IP technology, the official said. TV providers with IP-based systems can comply with the proposed rules by providing an API that allows third parties to request and receive video and related information according to the FCC. The API doesn't need access to every feature in Comcast's cable system—it just needs to know what a customer subscribes to and the other information required by the FCC's proposed rules.
In short, Comcast wants to retain control over viewer metrics and advertising, so it's pretending it's technically impossible to simply provide the content and a basic schedule of broadcasts ("Sorry! we tried to compete, didn't work out!"). That's why Comcast, alongside with other cable providers, has been pushing an "app-based compromise" to the FCC's plan. But as we recently noted, that plan comes with a few huge caveats -- namely that you'd still have to pay your cable provider for a cable box if you want to do fundamental things like record a program via DVR.

Unfortunately, the cable industry's lobbying efforts appear to be working, resulting in some of the Commissioners that voted yes on the plan (Jessica Rosenworcel, Mignon Clyburn) suddenly waffling on the idea. It's certainly not the end of the world if the FCC's plan fails, given the cable box is likely doomed anyway and the FCC could spend these calories focusing on the real lynch pin in the streaming video future: broadband competition. Still, it was nice to dream briefly of a world in which consumers didn't have to pay $231 more every year (on average) just to suffer at the hands of clunky, poorly-designed, locked down cable hardware.

Filed Under: competition, fcc, set top boxes
Companies: comcast


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  • icon
    clemahieu (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 6:53am

    Feasible or not, what's the point in persuing this? There are dozens of devices by multiple manufacturers that provide streaming services. I don't see customers being served by forcing access which no doubt will have horrid customer service and no response to issue requests.

    Another dumb idea in the string of dumb ideas of trying to simulate free markets through the FCC.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 7:49am

      Re:

      "There are dozens of devices by multiple manufacturers that provide streaming services."

      ...at additional cost not only at point of purchase and but usually requiring additional subscriptions as well. Not to mention space - those devices cannot replace the cable box, they can only add to it. Yes, some devices are pretty tiny, but some people will use that as a reason not to use it.

      "Feasible or not, what's the point in persuing this?"

      First of all, it means that customers don't have to pay a ransom for a set box they're just renting from the cable provider. They can choose a superior, cheaper, one-off purchase if they wish without having to continue paying for the inferior crap.

      Secondly, it does force them to interoperate with competition. This is something that's proven to help incumbent defacto monopolies actually compete and innovate to the benefit of its customers.

      Finally, people are more likely to try out competing services if it's easy. If it's expensive and requires extra hardware to use competition (as it is now), the monopoly is retained.

      There are other reasons, but those are the main ones that come to mind.

      "Another dumb idea in the string of dumb ideas"

      Maybe you could try reading the many justifications for the decision rather than rejecting it outright because you haven't listened to an opposing opinion?

      "trying to simulate free markets"

      So, what's your solution to this that doesn't involve a body like the FCC?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Wendy Cockcroft, 12 Jul 2016 @ 2:31am

        Re: Re:

        So, what's your solution to this that doesn't involve a body like the FCC?

        Shake his head sadly till the market corrects itself, i.e. they get supplanted by another corporation. "Free market" to these people means "consumer be damned." We are sheep to be fleeced.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 7:21am

    Come on, we all know it isn't easy. Lay off poor Comcast!
    Name me one streaming service out there that people can actually use in more than one device! See? It's not possible!
    Comcast is barely holding on with the ludicrous demands of serving you channels over a cable. Ah, the good old days of analog OTA broadcast! Now that was a technology that makes sense for today's world!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 7:28am

    It's certainly not the end of the world if the FCC's plan fails, given the cable box is likely doomed anyway and the FCC could spend these calories focusing on the real lynch pin in the streaming video future: broadband competition. Still, it was nice to dream briefly of a world in which consumers didn't have to pay $231 more every year (on average) just to suffer at the hands of clunky, poorly-designed, locked down cable hardware.
    I think this requirement would more than open the door for the broadband competition fight. If you could get your channels from whatever provider on a bunch of devices, they'd be forced to at least deal with the possibility that you could suddenly be a "TV" customer for Provider A over the broadband connection from Provider B. Then they'd have an interest aligned with ours for Net Neutrality.
    A lot of IFs there, but it could happen just like with Netflix. Wherever you can get a good enough internet connection, you hypothetically have access to your service.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 7:30am

    Another typo in the title

    Comcast Continues To Claim It's 'Not Feasible' To Offer Its Programming To Third-Party Cable Boxes

    You misspelled "Tyrannically Profitable". That is 23 characters in two words not 8 characters in one word.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MadAsASnake (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 7:49am

    Even if this does go through, they'll simply add the "rental" on as some other rate hike... unlikely to actually save consumers any money... one other thing - haven't these guys figured out that almost no-one wants ads?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 7:52am

    "we're really just talking about providing a few simple APIs"

    They could, of course, be telling the truth - their software is built so poorly, adheres to so few standards and is so illogical in design that it's not possible to provide an API that works with anything not designed in-house without a serious redesign.

    That's not an excuse and they've caused their own issues here either way, but it's certainly possible they're not lying on this occasion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 8:23am

    Put a packet capture tool on the line with your dvr and prepare to be shocked. Every damned thing you do initiates communication with the mothership. Ever wonder why the controls on your DVR's remote are so unresponsive? It's because when you press pause, the DVR asks Comcast if it's okay to pause at this time in the show you are watching. Comcast logs this request, and sends back a reply. Your DVR has to interpret that reply and then do something.

    If your internet/tv goes down, chances are you won't be able to watch the stuff you recorded locally because your DVR will be unable to get permission to show you the stuff you asked to be recorded.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 8:30am

    Still, it was nice to dream briefly of a world in which consumers didn't have to pay $231 more every year (on average) just to suffer at the hands of clunky, poorly-designed, locked down cable hardware.

    Well, considering I've cut the cord for sometime now I couldn't care less. Their death may come faster that way so maybe it's not that bad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 8:31am

    Call the bluff

    Given the real reason they're throwing fits over the matter(the potential to lose out on twenty-one billion per year in rental fees), I think it would be rather entertaining for the FCC to offer a 'compromise' of their own.

    "Okay, so you say it's not technically feasible. We're not completely unreasonable so how about this: You can either figure out a way to make it work, get someone else to figure out a way, or take the easy way and simply allow people to make a one-time purchase of the hardware. One purchase, and the subscriber owns the hardware and never has to pay again. You're already renting it out, so clearly you've got that bit worked out, so clearly you should have no problem taking the 'easy' way out."

    The mad scramble as they tried to spin simply selling the hardware as 'impossible' and 'unreasonable' would be worth more than a few chuckles I'm sure.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 8:41am

      Re: Call the bluff

      Or they could try to fork several years worth of rent on the sale effectively screwing customers even more. No, really, just some auditing will prove them wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 8:48am

    Until the pairing is broken,

    it will not get better. As long as conduit and content are controlled by the same entity, there is only a reason to fight for the status quo.

    If we ever got to the point that broadband was considered and handled as a utility service - and content over that utility service was handled by content providers - then these issues would become irrelevant.

    Thank God the electric company doesn't "rent" us all the electrical devices in our homes or control which brands we can buy...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 9:06am

    So why can I buy a Comcast cable modem off the shelf?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 8 Jul 2016 @ 10:20am

      Re:

      Because they weren't paying attention to how much revenue they'd lose by allowing it back then.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 10:58am

      Re:

      Go ahead and buy a modem (and a cable box when they become available)... All they do is "upgrade" to the next version of DOCSIS and obsolete your modem -- about every two years.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 9:37am

    Free rentals to those who don't want or need them

    Several years ago I had smallest channel bundle available (I think it was 9.99 a month) simply to keep from receiving a non-subscriber fee that was a few dollars more than the cheapest bundle.

    At some point during the analog tv signal shutdown, I received a call from someone at Comcast telling me that I needed to get the digital converter they had and it would be a couple of dollars for each unit each month... I spent several minutes explaining to the rep that we did not use the TV bundle and it was just to save a few bucks and adding the converter would make it cost more... after a bit of back and forth (and a hint that I would cancel the tv bundle and pay the non-subscriber fee) the rep said they'd send me the rentals for free...

    After receiving the rental units I hooked them up and promptly removed them... they blocked many channels and ended up downconverting the HD channels to SD glory.
    I couldn't believe that they wanted to charge me a montly fee for a piece of equipment that made the experience worse!

    I ended up out of state for several months and cancelled my tv bundle... ... as soon as I did that I was hounded by comcast to return the equipment (which was difficult since I was out of state).

    Prior to this experience I already hated dealing with cable boxes of any sort... now I don't trust any service that tells me I 'must' use their equipment. That's a screaming sign that they have crap for service!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 9:57am

    simple solution

    If they refuse to act in a manner for the public good, then they shouldn't be entitled to property easements for their cabling. Make them rip it out.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 6:12pm

    Re: we're really just talking about providing a few simple APIs:

    Spoken like somebody who has never used an API. Further, using an API in this capacity is twelve kinds of bad idea to begin with. The area most likely to see revolutionary development and market expansion will occur at layers BELOW the API, in the driver and protocol stack.

    From what I've seen of Comcast, it is unlikely we are talking about a unified design process here anyway. Their software systems ARE highly likely to be so localized that they aren't portable. They never had any reason to BE portable.

    Systems this specialized tend to evolve organically. A lot of the code is likely to have been written by people who wrote it because it was the only way to keep the network running. (Read as: not written by professional programmers)

    The network neutral goal here would be to kill the cable box period, and free up the private capacity into common cairrage land. NOBODY wants Comcasts crap software. The only thing anybody wants is fair access to the pipe.

    I am now starting to think that the FCC's laser focus on the black shiny box, is intended to broker some compromise where Comcast can still operate outside of common cairrage regs. This would be in the form of some subset of services that waive and smile at the first amendment and the free market as they sail over the wall.

    Such a model might be where the cable box was to broadband, like visual studio is to software engineering: a prerequisite that forces concession of subsequent development rights to the party controlling the upstream product.

    IOW, perhaps this entire debate is staged to create further entrenchment of Comcast into an even more monopolistic position, but over the software AND the network, instead of just the network.

    First they try and normalize the idea that the cable box IS the Internet, then they use a block of API's on that box to constrain the future development cycle. This would move the end node further AWAY from open standards. IOW, substituting TCP/IP access with that "simple API" your talking about.

    So FCC makes a beef, and everyone goes "YAY FCC!", and Comcast concedes and looses into being regulated into an even more fascist network architecture.

    To date I have seen nothing about the FCC's position that would suggest this isn't the most likely outcome. I find TD's position to be perhaps to enthusiastic, too early. Nobody has seen what this is going to become, and nothing I'm looking at, looks good.

    You can't fix this without breaking them up. Content or Carrier. Pick ONE.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jul 2016 @ 7:28pm

    Neat Idea but I doubt it.

    I simply don't think this can be done reliably.

    When DirecTV had multiple manufacturers making DSS Satellite boxes from Magnavox, RCA, Sony and others, technical documentation was leaked to hackers and hackers found ways to cicrcumvent paying.

    At one point in time, DirecTV estimated 1 out of every 4 satellite boxes sold were not paying for programming or content.

    So while the FCC's idea of opening up set-top boxes, I fully expect hackers to get around the toll-booth.

    That in-turn is likely going to result in higher prices for legitimate customers because new laws are likely to be written to ensure laws" written to prevent "Signal Theft" work in the internet-age; and also ensure people pay for programming content. This may result in new requirements and registraiton of IP address data to individual people so court documents can be served.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Jul 2016 @ 1:00pm

      Re: Neat Idea but I doubt it.

      It is well understood how to secure devices these days.

      Apple publishes very detailed white papers about the entire security model of the iPhone and it is arguably the most secure cell phone out there.

      All of the major ciphers (PGP, AES, Blowfish, etc...) are open and well understood and this makes them more secure, not less.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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