Lower cable bills won't follow new set top box rules

2 October 2016 by Steve Blum
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You still need, and need to pay for, one of these.

When – or if – the Federal Communications Commission adopts new rules that loosen restrictions on the hardware consumers can use to watch video from cable companies and other pay TV providers, it won’t mean the end of equipment fees tacked on to your monthly bill.

The FCC’s preliminary notice of proposed rule making focused on opening up the market for competing hardware, but that provoked a firestorm of protests and intense lobbying efforts by the industry. So instead of allowing consumers to buy a set top box that could plug in directly to a cable company’s network, or set top box functionality built in to a television or other device, FCC chair Tom Wheeler – a former top cable lobbyist himself – shifted to what’s been characterised as an app-based approach.

Wheeler is keeping the plan secret, at least from the public, and has only released a vague talking point summary. The gist of it is that you could install an app, provided by your cable company for free, onto, say, your smart TV and watch the cable channels you subscribe to or buy pay-per-view movies.

What the summary doesn’t say is how your smart TV (or mobile phone or Roku box or whatever) gets access to the programming stream that the free app would decode. There are two options: over the public Internet or via a direct connection to the cable network.

If the latter, then you’ll still need some kind of interface device between the cable outlet on your wall and your TV. The whole point of the app based approach is to prevent third party devices from connecting directly to cable systems on a hardware level. Cable companies won’t have to give you that interface for free.

Of course, it could be built into a cable modem, which you’d still need if you’re buying Internet service from your cable operator. You’d be charged for the modem, although it’s likely the new rules will require those charges to be itemised on your bill so you know how much you’re paying and for what. Even if you can access the programming stream via the public Internet, you’ll still need an ISP. Given the disparity between telco and cable broadband speeds, you’d be even more likely to opt for cable modem service.

If you despair of figuring out how to hook it all up or how to run a cable company’s app – do you think you think they’ll make it easy for you? – then you’ll still have the option of paying a monthly fee, amounting to hundreds of dollars a year, to rent a set top box: nothing changes.

For now, this is all speculation. The FCC’s new set top box rules are bogged down in a dispute over how apps are approved and licensed for use – a scheduled vote on Thursday was cancelled. The secrecy and back room lobbying that infests the FCC’s decision making process means we don’t know what the draft rules actually say, or even what the final rules will be until after – perhaps weeks after – a vote is taken. But there’s no reason to think that the result will be less expensive video service or fewer boxes and cables in your living room. Or the end of extra monthly equipment charges.