Anti-consumer legislation SOPA and PIPA might be all but dead, but there isn’t time to rest. There is a seemingly never-ending flow of proposed legislation, statutes and bills queued up, ready to bust down doors and storm living rooms. One of the latest involves the forced transition from analog to digital cable — something I wrote about back in 2008. If the FCC caves to massive lobbying from the cable companies, the days of unencrypted cable stations in the US will be numbered. Cable subscribers would be required to have a cable box (which will likely cost money) or CableCard-compatible box to receive even local network stations.
Boxee just recently started taking an active role in this fight. The Boxee Box has always been uniquely positioned as a legitimate cable alternative, but it wasn’t until Boxee Live TV launched last month that the company has gone against cable companies face-to-face. But if this proposal passes, it will stifle products not only from Boxee, but also products from El Gato, Silicon Dust and others — and let’s not forget about the likely millions of cable TVs currently enjoying living a box-less life.
Right now most cable providers are required by a 1996 FCC rule to provide a basic set of unencrypted stations. These are most often just local broadcast stations also available through an OTA tuner (think ABC, PBS, and a random religious station). Under the current rules, cable companies are not allowed to encrypt these stations, therefore allowing them to work with any TV, tuner, or as the FCC calls them, navigation devices like the Boxee Live TV. As cable providers started transitioning to a more efficient digital signal, these channels remained, able to work with older TVs most often found in guest bedrooms, garages and the like. But soon even those stations might go dark.
This process started several years back when Cablevision became the first provider to petition the FCC for a waiver (pdf alert) allowing the provider to completely ditch analog channels in some markets. The FCC granted the request, which caused several other providers to file similar petitions.
But this isn’t as nefarious as it sounds. Analog cable systems are notoriously inefficient. Cablevision went on to launch the US’s first residential 100mbps service way back in 2009. This was partly possible because the company freed space by using an all-digital TV transmission. At the time Verizon’s FiOS topped out at 50mbps, and as former TechCrunch writer Nicholas Deleon found out, the service lived up to its expectations. Plus it was only $100 a month. In 2009.
Comcast pointed out in 2009 that the provider can fit 10-15 digital stations or 2-3 HD stations onto a single analog transmission. Per AllVid’s press release citing Comcast’s Comments on the FCC’s docket number 11-169, Comcast went on to respond to the FCC in November 2011 that the digital transition goal set by Congress was achieved. So if the leak was fixed, why completely shut off the water now?
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association argues it’s time to move forward. Digital boxes allows cable companies to remotely troubleshoot problems therefore reducing the amount of trucks needed to respond to service calls. You know, it’s better for the Earth. Each time a cable truck is saved from rolling out to a subscriber’s house, Al Gore plants a tree — or something like that.
The NCTA goes on to state in its comments to the FCC that 77% of cable subscribers are already on a digital service, more on the larger providers: it’s 90% for Comcast, 95% for Cablevision, and 74% for TWC. The trade association insists that it’s time for the FCC to drop outdated rules and allow for a level playing field. Netflix has more subscribers than any cable provider, it states. As “the marketplace is robustly competitive and video services are being delivered over a range of different platforms to a wide array of different devices” a level playing field is warranted. Yes, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association says cable providers need the FCC’s to help stop people from cutting the cord.
Comcast started implementing a mostly digital line-up in my area in 2008. I was furious. I was going to lose service on several TVs. Now, my TV in my garage and office sit unused (first world problem, I know) because I’m not going to pay the $3 a month for additional boxes. The march to 100% digital will raise rates and alienate millions, I said. Now, Comcast and others are marching up the FCC stairs again, fueled by nearly endless lobbying money.
Boxee points out in their blog post that cable companies spent more the $50 million on lobbying. That’s $50 million, that rather than improving their service, was spent on courting the FCC and legislators into redefining consumer friendly statutes. Boxee doesn’t have that kind of cash. They instead received an audience with the FCC Chairman and staff and presented their argument that modifying the existing rules will slow innovation, harm start-ups and hurt consumers by raising rates. But moreover, the move to an all-digital service can be achieved in different means.
The CEA agrees. The Consumer Electronic Association indicated that the proposed ruling should not be enacted by itself. There are other, more pressing matters that the FCC must address alongside this issue. Granting cable providers a sweeping ruling does not solve the underlining issues of lack of competition, “downloadable security”, and allowing the private sector to enact their solutions (AllVid). “If [the FCC] is going to continue with fixes that are only “interim,” it should proceed, as well, with a true solution,” says the CEA at the end of its comments on the matter.
The AllVid Tech Company Alliance, a group of industry leaders founded to advance the FCC’s proposed AllVid standard, also oppose the ruling. The alliance states that the FCC should continue issuing waivers on a case-by-case basis. Anything less would stifle competition and force more consumers to rely on “proprietary leased devices.”
Boxee is winning. Consumers are winning. Cable companies are starting to feel the heat from people tired of paying for hundreds of stations but only watching a few. Cable companies need to do what ever they can to lock consumers in, but they’re driving them away at a faster rate. Prices constantly rise without any noticeable improvement in service.
Consumers deserve choices. Sure, they have a choice whether to subscribe to a given cable company, but they should also have a choice to use 3rd party hardware and boxes. In 1996 Congress entrusted the FCC with the task to adopt regulations that would ensure commercial availability of navigation devices such as set top boxes. As Boxee, the CEA, and AllVid point out in their FCC comments, caving to the cable companies would be in direct violation of these instructions.The FCC is supposed to look out for the lowly consumer, not the mighty cable company. Hopefully they’ll keep this in mind as Comcast and others wine and dine Washington DC.