Technology

Beyond the Box

Cable TV boxes are among the peskiest pieces of hardware on the planet. Regulators are finally eyeing the right solution.

Cable TV Set-Top Box
More speed, more devices, and more choices—that’s a huge win.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Image by Roel Smart/Thinkstock.

If you subscribe to pay TV, the odds are 99–1 you have what the TV industry calls a “set-top box.” Even greater are the odds that, if you have one, you despise the thing. Each month, you “rent” a device that pipes cable TV to your television—but if you rely on other media sources like a Blu-ray player or a Chromecast, you may find yourself using multiple remote controls to switch between the devices hooked into your TV. Cable and satellite companies rake in about $20 billion per year in set-top box rentals, on top of the subscription fees users pay for their services. And for the most part, subscribers, who pay $232 per year on average for the rentals, don’t get new equipment, or new software, or new features for that $20 billion.

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Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission decided to craft new regulations for the set-top box marketplace. I’m as skeptical of new FCC regulations as anyone—more than a decade I ago, I challenged an FCC proposal that would have limited consumers’ ability to connect their computers and other digital devices to their TVs. But the FCC has a 20-year-old mandate from Congress to create competition among the platforms and devices we use to access pay TV, so if consumers aren’t pleased, the commission is right to revisit how the set-top market works—and how the larger market for pay TV works, too. That it’s doing so is reason for everyone who’s ever cursed at their cable setup to cheer, a conclusion I came to recently when I ran into stumbling blocks in my own efforts to upgrade my cable. What I realized is that the FCC isn’t just trying to make it easier for more companies to sell you a broader variety of hardware to place atop your TV. It’s aiming for something that will transform home entertainment systems far more profoundly.

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First, a confession: Although I am a happy Comcast subscriber, I gave up my own Comcast set-top box years ago. (After too many cross-country moves, I gave up my high-definition TV set, too.) Still, like most other cord-cutting Americans, I have a home network. It’s mostly wireless and it’s connected to the Internet through Comcast—and I also still watch a lot of TV and video through the Internet. I have two smartphones, two tablets, and three laptops, and until recently I would frequently see slowdowns in my cable Internet service. It was worst when I watched “over-the-top” programming from services like Amazon Prime or Netflix on my digital devices, often while doing work at home, answering email, or browsing the Web.

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Part of the problem, I guessed, was that I was using the same clunky old cable modem that I leased from Comcast. So I started shopping on the Web. Was there a bundle from Comcast, my provider, that would give me greater Internet speed and TV choices at a reasonable price? Or did I want to switch to a competitor like Verizon Fios or DirecTV? Each multichannel video programming distributor—or MVPD—had something special to offer on the pay-TV side, plus the bundling of telephone and high-speed Internet service.

I first tried to see if I could improve my existing service. Back in my set-top-box days, I used to like Comcast’s TV packages, mostly for HBO and Showtime, but they always included lots of TV options I never watched. These days, I mostly binge-watch over-the-top shows like Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle and Netflix’s Jessica Jones. And I can even get some series à la carte online.

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I quickly learned I could just upgrade my Comcast Xfinity package over the Web, multiplying my download capacity by a factor of five or six to a whopping 150 megabits per second. But Comcast didn’t make it easy to downgrade or dispense with other services, or to buy a cable modem rather than rent one, or to get HBO without a set-top box.

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Looking specifically for Internet-only offerings from Xfinity, I had to bail on Comcast’s website, which didn’t make it easy to specify unbundled Internet-only service. (I looked at websites for AT&T and Direct TV, as well—similar difficulties there.) And it was super difficult to suss out what kind of cable hardware I might want to buy that would free me from monthly rental fees for my cable box or any set-top box, be compatible with cable’s content offerings and Internet services, and feel like a flexible, functional device that’s worth owning in itself for the user experience it provides or enables. I ended up deciding to call Comcast directly, which turned out to be the only way a subscriber can easily find the kind of options I wanted for simultaneously upgrading some aspects of my service while eliminating others.

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The Comcast rep was entirely pleasant and helpful. He tried to offer me attractive bundles that included one of Xfinity cable packages. But almost every one of those offerings would have required me to get a set-top box. The Comcast rep quickly priced out my requests. It turned out that I could get that super-capacious, high-speed Internet from Xfinity, cut off the unused landline, continue to forgo any cable content offering, and actually save about $20 a month on my bill.

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But get this: I didn’t even need to upgrade my cable modem, which, it turns out, wasn’t as clunky and outdated as I had assumed (and as Comcast’s website had hinted). The cable modem, which is the only Comcast hardware in my apartment, had the ability to give me upgraded services through software, directed by Comcast’s network. My service was upgraded while I was still on the phone to Comcast’s sales department from my office, and the first thing I checked when I got home was whether I really got 150 megabits per second. As it happens, I got 175 on the first try.

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That’s when it hit me: Upgrading and changing Internet and TV services through software, instead of relying on hardware upgrades, is exactly what the FCC is up to in this latest rulemaking, enabling you to hang your own devices, not something you rent, off your TV service.

More speed, more devices, and more choices—that’s a huge win. In effect, the commission’s proposed rulemaking would allow software-based alternatives, working through our Internet/pay-TV connections, to replace our set-top boxes. Under the FCC rule, I may soon be able to get all my premium pay-TV choices, including the ones that used to require set-top boxes, directly accessible on my computer, tablet, phone, or TV in my home network, much as I can now with Amazon Prime or Netflix. And I’d be liberated from needing a set-top box connected to any of these devices.

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Even the commissioners who dissented from this new rulemaking yearn to be liberated in this way. Commissioner Ajit Pai was frank about this in his dissent. “As someone with three set-top boxes in my home, I share the frustrations felt by millions of Americans across this country. These boxes are clunky and expensive, and I feel the pain each and every month when I pay my video bill,” he said. “And as an FCC Commissioner, I know that the current set-top box marketplace is the product of an intrusive regulatory regime.”

I second that emotion. Just as I felt liberated decades ago when I no longer had to rent telephones and learned I could use my phone service to connect in all sorts of ways to the larger world, I know I’ll be liberated again when I’m able to get all my pay TV on any device in my home just by being a subscriber. I expect the FCC’s proposed regulations, which could push set-top box content controls out of set-top-box hardware and into the cloud, will help more consumers make similarly liberating decisions.

The FCC’s proposed rulemaking, if implemented correctly, actually could finally open that that market. I’m as skeptical of new regulatory schemes as I ever was, but the FCC’s latest initiative speaks directly to my TV-and-Internet-consuming self. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has named this initiative “Unlock the Box,” and Commissioner Pai has argued that the commission’s goal “should be to eliminate the box.” I’m ready to buy either T-shirt.

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