FCC Formally Kills Rules That Would Have Brought Competition To The Cable Box

from the competition-schmompetition dept

In early 2016, the cable industry quietly launched one of the most misleading and successful lobbying efforts in the industry's history. The target? A plan concocted by the former FCC that would have let customers watch cable TV lineups on third-party hardware. Given the industry makes $21 billion annually in rental fees thanks to its cable box hardware monopoly, the industry got right to work with an absolute wave of disinformation, claiming that the FCC's plan would put consumer data at risk, result in a "piracy apocalypse," and was somehow even racist (it wasn't).

At one point, the industry even managed to grab the help of the US Copyright Office, which falsely claimed that more cable box competition would somehow violate copyright. Of course the plan had nothing to do with copyright, and everything to do with control, exemplifying once again that for the US Copyright Office, public welfare can often be a distant afterthought.

Once in office, the Pai FCC dutifully got to work dismantling the Wheeler-era FCC proposal, coordinated with and justified by cable providers which promised their own "free market alternatives" would make the proposal irrelevant. More specifically, they promised that you'd be able to order Comcast or Spectrum's cable lineup through an app, making cable boxes irrelevant. But this promised alternative never showed up:

"Last June, Big Cable made an appealing offer for viewers and regulators. Companies would provide consumers with free apps to watch TV rather than making them pay monthly fees for cable boxes. But the cable companies didn’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts — they wanted to stop the Federal Communication Commission from passing regulations making them ship apps.

A year after that “Ditch the Box” pledge, two things have changed. There’s now zero threat of federal regulators requiring cable operators to give subscribers free apps to replace rented boxes, and the industry’s “Ditch the Box” plan seems to have disappeared."

Funny how that works. This week the FCC put the finishing touches on scuttling the proposal, while also eliminating the need for cable providers to support CableCARD, technology that lets you avoid buying a traditional cable provider cable box, and instead using hardware like TiVo. It's a tech the industry always under-supported because it took revenue away from cable box rentals. And now that too is largely dead, buried under (false) claims it was no longer necessary because streaming is now so gosh darn competitive:

"In explaining why it killed off Wheeler’s plan for good last week, the FCC largely regurgitated cable industry talking points. The agency said it had “serious and unresolved concerns” about security and copyright protection (concerns that consumer advocacy groups have disputed), and reiterated the same argument it used against CableCARD: Customers already have the ability to watch cable programming on their streaming devices, so there’s no need for more regulatory intervention."

While it's true that streaming providers have brought some helpful competition to the sector, much of the content is still owned by consolidated telecom/cable/media giants like AT&T Time Warner and Comcast NBC Universal. And while they're very slowly losing their dominance thanks to cord cutters, these gatekeepers have enough power that they're still doing everything in their power to lock you inside their walled gardens, tracked by their data tracking systems, using clunky old cable boxes if you want the "best experience":

"Sure, if you’re a Comcast subscriber, you can use the Xfinity Stream app in place of a cable box on Roku devices, Samsung TVs, and LG TVs. But that same app isn’t available on other streaming platforms such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, or Chromecast. A report last year by BestAppleTV claimed that Comcast is more interested in building up its own X1 platform than supporting more third-party alternatives such as Apple TV, and while Comcast disputed the story, it hasn’t launched any new streaming apps in more than a year.

Likewise, if you’re getting TV service through Spectrum, you can use the Spectrum app on Roku, Apple TV, Samsung TVs, and Xbox One consoles, but not on Fire TV, Android TV, or Chromecast. Meanwhile, Dish Network only offers live TV and DVR on Amazon Fire TV devices."

The ideal solution to this problem continues to be to vote with your wallet and cut the cord. But for those who can't do so (due to a desire to watch live sports, or lack of a fast, uncapped broadband line for streaming), you're still going to find yourself stuck, more often than not, renting a dated, crappy, expensive, locked-down cable box. And with the FCC's help, the cable industry continues to work overtime to ensure that's the most expensive proposition possible, charging you major monthly fees to use their cheap, clunky, proprietary, locked-down hardware.

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Filed Under: 3rd party, cable box, cablecard, competition, fcc, fees


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  • identicon
    Glenn, 10 Sep 2020 @ 2:30pm

    The cable box is the #1 reason why I don't subscribe to cable TV--not the only one that keeps me away, but each of the reasons is enough in and of itself.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 2:44pm

    The beauty of being a regulator. If it's too much bother doing your job, you can just change the regulations so that you don't have to do it.

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

    • identicon
      dfH, 10 Sep 2020 @ 4:25pm

      Re: The beauty of being a regulator

      The beauty of being a regulator is a guaranteed fat-paycheck & no penalty for doing a lousy job.

      Plus, there's zero competition in your line of work and you have an absolute monopoly over your customers (the American people).

      There is no escape from the whims and malice of Federal regulators.
      (at least one can refuse to deal with cable TV companies)

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 2:47pm

    'I'm sure they'll follow through THIS time...'

    Forget the atomic clock, if you want something you can really set your watch to one need only look at the cable industry, which will agree to any requirements, make any promise, or agree to any deal only to back out the second they get what they wanted and refuse to uphold their end of the deal.

    If I believed for one second that the politicians and the FCC members involved weren't corrupt as hell I'd have to assume that they were far, far too stupid to do the jobs, because at this point even the most basic of pattern recognition would have let someone know how their 'trade' was going to work out here.

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

  • icon
    Thad (profile), 10 Sep 2020 @ 3:12pm

    Seems like competition in the cable box industry is increasingly a moot point. Won't be long before it makes as much sense to talk about a need for competition in the cable box industry as competition in the typewriter or buggy-whip industries.

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 4:36pm

    Everything's racist anymore. Corona is killing people (well, you knew it was killing the wrong people.) But, says the Guardian in an article about how it was killing doctors and nurses (they use the euphemism "health care workers") ... it turns out--who could have known?--it was also killing members of the wrong races (it used the euphemism "people of color", although to be consistent it should have been "color people" or "workers of care of health") even among HCW's.

    I'm not sure how I'm supposed to take that. Does the Guardian think it's all right to kill off workers so long as only people out of color are killed? Does the Guardian think someone thinks it doesn't matter how many POOC's are killed so long as a (disproportionately small) percentage of POC's are also killed?

    Apparently, even death and taxes are inherently racist.... The concept of something being not racist but yet still evil, seems to have been lost somewhere.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Sep 2020 @ 5:33pm

      Re:

      Hang on a sec .... what is this post about again?

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

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 11 Sep 2020 @ 6:03am

        Re: Re:

        Looks like the usual idiot brigade "I can't counter anything in the article to man the deflector shields", along with a specific hatred of a British newspaper for some reason.

        Either that, or this one's too dumb to post his comment on the correct article.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2020 @ 5:39am

    who's to blame

    "A government of the people, by the people, for the people"
    If the government is refusing to allow proper competition in the ISP space, then it's up to the "governed" people to correct this.

    1. boycott
    2. local municipal ISP
    3. put the issue on the quarterly local ballots
    4. twitter -actually use social media for something good for once

    There's any number of ways for us to get from under this rock, but honestly who really cares?

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 11 Sep 2020 @ 8:21am

      Re: who's to blame

      1 - Not a viable option for a great many people, who are in the position of getting internet service from a major ISP or not getting internet service at all.

      2 - See Point 1 if you mean 'switch to', see major ISP's making it crushingly difficult for local muni's to crop up, whether that be lying through their teeth about how terrible they are or simply buying politicians in order to pass laws making such things illegal.

      3 & 4 - Getting more attention on the issue and putting pressure on politicians to stop screwing over the public are both good ideas, but anyone going that route needs to keep in mind that it is going to be a heavily tilted uphill battle as the amounts of the 'donations' that ISP's throw around is hardly trivial and has great sway with those writing the laws who are going to be extremely hesitatant to do anything that might threaten those 'donations'. It's a battle worth fighting to be sure, but it's one in which the public basically has a BB gun while the opposing forces have artillery and fortified positions, making for one hell of a one-sided battlefield.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2020 @ 10:10am

        Re: Re: who's to blame

        So because it's difficult, don't do it...I can dig it.

        That BB gun that you reference is, in fact, the same ammunition that is utilized by the big ISP's and their lobbyists: $money$
        We pay they ISPs & their lobbyists
        We pay the politicians via taxes
        We are the ones responsible for allowing this crap to continue because We don't care enough about the issue to change it. No worries though, Bernie and AOC will make internet access free -in the US at least- one day <YEAH, RIGHT\>.

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

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 11 Sep 2020 @ 12:33pm

          Re: Re: Re: who's to blame

          So because it's difficult, don't do it...I can dig it.

          The hallucinatory version of me in your head certainly sounds like a strange one, thankfully it doesn't match the real me or that would be a problematic rebuttal to address rather than a simple reminder to clear up your strawman after you're done with it.

          That BB gun that you reference is, in fact, the same ammunition that is utilized by the big ISP's and their lobbyists: $money$

          In the same way that a homeless man with $5 to their name has the same ammo as a billionaire, sure.

          We pay they ISPs & their lobbyists

          Said the person using the internet to make his argument, and is therefore one of the lucky ones who has a meaningful choice as to which ISP to pay and has one of the good ones on the list, or is hypocritically calling for boycotts that you aren't willing to do yourself. So, out of curiosity, is it dumb luck or hypocrisy?

          We pay the politicians via taxes

          Indirectly, and to a scale that the individual 'pay' per person is minuscule, compared to the very real, very large donations from individual companies. Of the two one of those is likely to have a lot more impact than the other in influencing a politician, I'll leave it up to you to figure out which.

          We are the ones responsible for allowing this crap to continue because We don't care enough about the issue to change it. No worries though, Bernie and AOC will make internet access free -in the US at least- one day <YEAH, RIGHT\>.

          One sec, need to pull out the political buzzword bingo card and fill in the AOC and Bernie boxes...

          ... And done, thanks for the two-fer.

          Now then, back to what sliver of an argument actually was in that comment before it jumped the rails, the public has some of the blame and could do more, but it's important to realize and accept that the playing field is heavily tilted in favor of the entrenched businesses, who are able to throw around piles of money and don't particularly care who gets it so long as the winner owes them. When every choice at the voting booth is compromised there's only so much the public can do, all the more so when you factor in that even if you get a good candidate unless it's for a local position odds are good they're going to be working alongside others that you didn't get to vote for, who might be quite happy with the 'donations' they got, making for a difficult path for getting anything meaningful changed.

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

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2020 @ 12:59pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: who's to blame

            Aside from condescending verbosity, what would you suggest to change the status quo?
            If the producer increases the price of a product/service, the consumer has about 3 options:
            -pay the increased price
            -refuse the price hike and go without
            -create their own competing product/service
            You make it sound as if there are no options other than to accept the lack of ISP competition, and you are wrong. Just because odds are stacked against us, does not mean that the war is not worth fighting. With your mentality, the US would still be a British colony. Similarly, why did Southern Blacks fight (and get arrested and killed) for equal rights? They should have just acquiesced since the odds were stacked against their poor, uneducated, outnumbered [m]asses. Right?
            Deep Friday Thought: There's no progress without pain.

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

            • icon
              That One Guy (profile), 11 Sep 2020 @ 2:46pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: who's to blame

              As this is your second comment where you're attacking a fictional, strawman version of my comment I think I'll stop wasting my time with you, have fun trouncing that figment of your imagination.

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

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2020 @ 6:17pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: who's to blame

                Because you have nothing to contribute to the solution, Guy, just attack and belittle everyone who does not agree with you.
                That (Troll) Guy be trippiiiiin...

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

            • icon
              PaulT (profile), 12 Sep 2020 @ 7:55am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: who's to blame

              "If the producer increases the price of a product/service, the consumer has about 3 options:
              -pay the increased price
              -refuse the price hike and go without
              -create their own competing product/service"

              You forgot 4: have effective government regulation to force competition and real consumer choice, as has worked very well outside of the US. But you can't have that apparently because it's "socialism".

              "Similarly, why did Southern Blacks fight (and get arrested and killed) for equal rights?"

              I love the fact that under current circumstances, you think that belongs in the past tense.

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

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 12 Sep 2020 @ 7:41am

      Re: who's to blame

      "boycott"

      OK, which means that a bunch of people no longer have internet access due to the monopolies, thus limited access to various commercial and government services, to the point of not being able to apply for certain jobs or pay certain bills.

      "local municipal ISP"

      A great choice, if you ignore the fact that in some places the incumbents have successfully pushed for that to be outlawed.

      "put the issue on the quarterly local ballots"

      OK, I'll admit I'm not up to date on US politics, but quarterly ballots? really?

      "twitter -actually use social media for something good for once"

      ...and compete for attention against the AT&T bot farm? Yeah that will go well....

      "There's any number of ways for us to get from under this rock"

      But, the way that makes the most sense and is most effective - real government oversight and real competition - is not a choice according to these people.

      "who really cares"

      The people who get reamed for inferior service?

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

  • icon
    Great_Scott (profile), 11 Sep 2020 @ 9:37am

    It will all work out!

    While it's bad that CableCARD was completely killed off, it was too difficult for most people to get working already.

    The FCC is, in a weird way, helping people transition to streaming services. Which might seem helpful but won't be in the longer term as many in the US get Internet service from cable providers.

    I've recently started to realize that streaming providers like Netflix are transitional, in that television-style programming is on the way out, no matter how it reaches your eyeballs.

    Fortunately so, as it seems clear that Cable providers will simply take the fees in another way once cord-cutting is complete.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2020 @ 12:21pm

      Re: It will all work out!

      While it's bad that CableCARD was completely killed off, it was too difficult for most people to get working already.

      No it wasn't. People are just lazy, entitled to willful arrogance, and didn't want the extra step (read: unspeakable horror) of installing something on a computer manually. Anything that tries this in the US will fail. We've trained them all to be apathetic toward technology literacy.

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

  • icon
    pixelm (profile), 11 Sep 2020 @ 3:25pm

    Great Scott has it righ

    Carl - you have to think about the ecosystem, not cable boxes. If you are concerned about ISP competition, you need to introduce ISP competition.

    The point about the price of a cable box ignores the fact that the box is a part of a complete system, and there are expensive lobbyists both pushing FOR and AGAINST this proposal. If ISPs are really monopolists, then post regulation, they would have given the boxes away free and charged more for the cable programming bundle. It's really no difference to an ISP.

    On the other hand, impose new regulations requiring that the cable system allow third party boxes, and third parties are going to give away the boxes (or incorporated the technology in another device), but sell advertising against content they don't pay for. Cable operators pay billions for content - wouldn't it be great to sell ads and not have to pay? And on top of it get more $$$ for viewing data, and selling Search Engine Optimization services to cable programmers? And perhaps steering viewers to their own services?

    The proposal would have been a massive transfer of value to different monopolists and would have accelerated the decline of the cable ecosystem.

    Sure OTT is coming fast - not fast enough for the big tech companies which get a cut of every click, view and search online.

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


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