I don’t care how you do it. Someone needs to fix the cable box.


Last week, the Federal Communications Commission revealed a proposal that would loosen the cable industry’s grip on the set-top box — that flat, gray or black box that sits on your TV stand and is largely ignored until you were moving into your next home.

Brilliant, you say. Why would a normal person care about something so boring? The truth is that this proposal could in fact make this decoder an interesting product. Not only could this affect the way you watch your TV shows, movies and videos, but it could also make products like the Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and others a much more integral part of your house. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

As my colleague Brian Fung has pointed out, the immediate impact for consumers if this proposal is approved would be that they could save money by not renting their set-top box from their provider. On average, consumers pay $20 (around Rs 1,360) per month to rent the devices. But a more interesting development is perhaps a little more nebulous: it could also change the way we watch TV, by allowing other companies to make set-top boxes that can completely replace the one you get from your cable company.

And this has been the source of much controversy.

The cable box, most of us can agree, is not a great product. It’s definitely not one that feels updated for a modern era. For example, there’s that outdated-looking channel guide that graces the screens of most cable users’ homes. It’s one of those little everyday annoyances that really seem like they need to be fixed now. It’s 2016! Why is it so hard to find the channel I want, even when I know what I want to watch?

This could change if this proposal is approved. You may think a decoder is just a decoder. But proponents of the proposal say it could become much more if cable companies shared this information with other manufacturers.

At least that’s the argument FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made to Recode, comparing a set-top box unlock proposal to government action decades ago to allow people to buy their own. telephones rather than having to rent them. from the telephone company.

“The FCC unlocked competition and gave consumers a simple but powerful rule: Consumers could connect any phones and modems they wanted to the phone network,” he wrote. “Competition and breakthrough innovation have followed, from low-cost phones to answering machines to the technology that powers the Internet.”

Of course, under the proposal, cable customers could still choose to have their cable provider’s box. It may be the easiest thing to do, after all. But cable companies would be competitors in a much larger market.

John Bergmayer, senior attorney at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, noted that virtually every other area of ​​technology has a separation between the network operator and the device you connect to that network. “Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile don’t decide which apps can be on your phones,” he said. “You don’t get your laptop from Comcast.” The video market, he said, should work the same way.

He also noted that the set-top box could become a more important part of your home over time.

Cable companies, he said, have already looked at ways to make the set-top box a home hub — to also be the central operating point for your smart home or security system. Apple has certainly gone in this direction with its Apple TV, integrating its HomeKit technology into its set-top box. Being able to combine your cable viewing with a smart home hub would bring us one step closer to the “Star Trek” techies dream of when they think of the home of the future.

But even if the innovation extended only to television, that would be welcome for most consumers. You could ditch that big channel guide grid. You might be able to pin your favorite channels to the top of a guide. If you have a favorite show or movie, perhaps you can set an alert to show on your cable box whenever it’s turned on, regardless of the channel. And if it’s added to a streaming service, you might as well find out.

Or imagine what it could do for research. As more and more people turn to additional services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video and iTunes for TV and movies, we all see how annoying it can be to get the show you want. watch, on a service you have access to, and on the screen you want to watch.

Apple, Roku and others have tried to solve this problem by using apps – you can download the apps you want on their boxes and then use them to watch whatever you want. And independent set-top box maker TiVo has used technology available under current rules to do exactly what this proposal would do: let you replace your cable provider’s set-top box with one of theirs, for certain carriers.

This is part of the reason why the cable industry, as well as other companies such as Roku, are very opposed to this latest proposal. They say this kind of innovation is already underway: Comcast has its X1 system, which goes beyond the typical set-top box with a sleek interface that offers recommendations and lets you watch live TV or recorded programs on your mobile devices.

Smart TV companies and others have tried guides that place video from streaming services alongside normal programming. The cable industry said that in general, they are working on creating apps that get their programming on other companies’ devices and eliminate the need for a box. For the FCC to step in with new regulations requiring sharing, they say, unnecessarily upsets the balance of the direction the industry is already taking.

That may be true; the government hasn’t always had a great track record when it comes to entering competitive industries – even the cable industry itself.

But something has to change. Because none of the proposed options has so far proven to be the perfect solution; in fact, it often feels like a palliative. Apps, for example, aren’t necessarily the best solution for video streaming, as they just aggregate many small buckets in one place, rather than creating a great menu of all your options.

“There’s a lot of talk about apps solving the problem” of fragmentation, said Robin Wilson, vice president of business development at NAGRA – a company that has already introduced a product for cable boxes to unify some of these services. “But I think that’s naive and maybe five to 10 years too late. Often apps don’t talk to each other, you’re still using lots of different user interfaces [menu designs] and the deep links barely work,” he said, switching between apps.

Consumers don’t even want to jump between apps to get what they want to watch. it’s tedious, he says. “You need more than that,” Wilson said. “You need to share information and have a global application.” Whether it’s sharing channel guide information due to government regulations or entering into business-to-business agreements to get all of this information in one place, businesses viewing the video space should know that consumers seek simplicity. Now.

If someone can offer that, they can probably take the whole market.

© 2016 The Washington Post

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