The cable industry is aggressively fighting the FCC's attempt
to bring competition to the cable box market. So far that's been via a two-pronged approach of buying a torrent of incredibly misleading
editorials by people pretending to be objective observers (including Jesse Jackson
), and throwing money at politicians who oppose the plan, but pretty clearly have no goddamned idea
what they're actually talking about.
Under the FCC's plan
(pdf), cable providers would be required to provide their existing programming to third-party hardware vendors, creating competition and hopefully a flood of better, cheaper hardware without the need for expensive, and annoying CableCARDs. But with the average user paying $231 annually in set top box rental fees, the cable industry is pulling out all the stops to protect $21 billion in annual, captive revenues.
The cable sector's latest attempt to scuttle the FCC's plan? A voluntary counter-proposal that pretends to deliver what the FCC is asking for, but falls well short. Under the proposal unveiled during recent meetings at the FCC
(pdf), the cable industry would instead provide much of its existing programming via apps. This, the cable industry claims, would somehow create competition in the third-party hardware market without FCC involvement:
This alternative could be built on enforcing an industry-wide commitment to develop and deploy video “apps” that all large MVPDs would build to open HTML5 web standards....They expressed their belief that such an approach could further advance competition for independent device manufacturers within the context of a market transformation already underway and in a manner that fully protects and respects the rights of content owners.
But while this has been portrayed as some kind of revolutionary concession
by hired telecom sector policy cheerleaders and several different press outlets
, it isn't much different than what cable operators offer today. Currently, most cable providers offer some
of their content via apps usable on tablets, smartphones, and many streaming devices. Historically, they offer fewer features and less content than is available via full, traditional cable; little more than a token gesture toward innovation in the hopes of keeping paying customers from jumping ship to Netflix, Amazon, or a collection of other cheaper options.
Under this latest proposal, you'd be able to watch some cable content via apps, but if you wanted to, say, record via DVR -- you'd still have to sign up for old, vanilla QAM-based cable and pay for the same, old, clunky set top box. Ultimately, my guess is that these cable executives would eventually get rid of the cable box if you use their
apps, but force you to pay a monthly fee for their
cloud-based streaming or other services. Potentially using zero rating (exempting their services from usage caps
) to ensure fealty. Slight variation on the same, existing song.
INCOMPAS, a trade association that has Google, Amazon, Netflix, and some ISPs as members (mostly telcos with no interest in selling cable TV), issued a statement pointing out
that this "compromise" wasn't much of one, while reminding everyone that cable sector promises historically don't mean much:
...The cable industry is proposing competitive choice for streaming devices, but still seeks to retain a controlling grip on DVRs and recordable devices. “The cable industry has made promises before about ditching the set-top box, that have not materialized. So it is important for the FCC’s unlock the box proposal to include enforceable standards that will create a thriving market for competition, congruent with the law.
Consumer groups too were quick to point out
that the cable industry's proposal is murky and falls short:
"The proposal does not allow for many features that consumers want, such as home recording, and it does not allow for true user interface competition," Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer said in a statement sent to Ars. "Additionally, core aspects of the proposal are unclear, in particular, the precise mechanism by which MVPDs propose to provide apps for various hardware and software platforms, and whether consumers would need a broadband connection to access video programming instead of leveraging their existing pay TV connections."
While it's good this proposal at least brings the cable industry to the table, skepticism is more than warranted. This is, after all, an industry with a long, proud history of engaging in anti-competitive behavior under the auspices of phantom technical justification, with net neutrality and usage caps being only a small part of the equation. Comcast, for example, is so eager to limit streaming competition it refuses to let its broadband customers access HBO Go
across a wide variety of devices, providing only fleeting, half-baked justifications for the behavior.
Make no mistake, the cable industry is absolutely terrified of not only losing tens of billions in rental fees, but of truly open hardware platforms willing to direct customers to cheaper streaming alternatives. Under this app-based approach, you can be dead certain that cable would include all manner of caveats to ensure customers still need to sign up for traditional cable or their
DVR services if they want the "full TV experience." Anyone who thinks the sector's going to honestly volunteer any plan that puts its existing monopoly power at any serious risk -- simply doesn't know the cable industry.
If the FCC is truly intent on real competition to the set top box market, the cable industry may need to be dragged kicking and screaming to the finish line.