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The Journal Gazette

September 20, 2016 1:00 AM

Cutting the cable

FCC action will have benefits for TV service subscribers

Christer Watson

Despite it being the final sprint to the presidential election, I just don’t have the stamina to write about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Instead, let’s think about something completely different.

When a person gets cable TV and cable internet, they typically use two different devices from the company: one to receive the signal for their TV and one for their internet. Comparing those two devices makes for an interesting contrast in how business and technology can evolve.

Cable TV has been a monopoly business basically from the beginning. In the 1980s, a typical cable subscription offered more channels than many TVs could receive, so set-top boxes were necessary to watch all the channels. As a monopoly, the cable company could create whatever system it wanted, make the set-top box and move along.

I remember having to set my family TV to channel 3 so we could use the cable channels. If we wanted to record a show with our VCR, we had to set the VCR to 3 and the cable box to the correct channel. This was all necessary because the TV manufacturer, VCR manufacturer and cable company didn’t agree on the rules for how to send the extra channels through the cable. As new features were introduced in cable, such as hundreds of channels, a TV schedule display or pay-per-view events, this lack of communication among devices continued.

Throughout this process, the cable company determined the new features and made the set-top boxes using whatever rules it made itself. Usually, the company wouldn’t share those rules with anyone else. That’s why basically everyone who has cable TV also needs a set-top box made by their cable company.

The history of internet service has a very different theme. When a combination of the military and university groups developed the early versions of the internet, a high value was placed on things being able to operate together. The whole structure was developed in part to make sure that, as long as everyone followed certain clearly stated rules, anything could join the network. Fast-forward to today. The typical cable modem most people use to connect their home to the internet basically follows those same rules. As a result, you can buy a cable modem online for $50 and be confident it will work with your internet subscription.

Of course, this difference between cable set-top boxes and cable modems is crazy. They are not that different. You should be able to buy either one for $50. Instead, the FCC estimates that a typical cable TV subscriber pays about $230 a year to rent a set-top box. That’s nuts. Worse, it has gotten more expensive over the last two decades, not cheaper. In the technology world, that is not how prices typically evolve.

Thankfully, things might get fixed. A couple of weeks ago, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced new rules for cable companies and their set-top boxes. This is the sort of government regulation that can actually help start innovation and bring down prices.

This FCC process has been under way for about a year. In January, the FCC made an initial proposal and requested comments from the public. The agency just released the revised rules after taking into account the comments received. Cable companies have two years to adjust to the new rules, so we won’t see change right away. However, the revised rules look like they will make cable TV a different, more competitive, more creative space.

The new rules basically require cable companies to make apps that would serve the same function as a set-top box. The apps could run on common devices many people already own, such as a Roku, XBox or perhaps even directly on a TV. That means you wouldn’t need to rent a set-top box anymore.

Unfortunately, this solution is not as revolutionary as the initial proposal in January. That would have forced an open system, similar to the system used for internet connections. This new proposal may get only part of that creativity. The five FCC commissioners will vote on the proposal on Sept. 29. If a majority approve, it becomes the new rule. I’m sure they would love to hear from you.

 

Christer Watson, a Fort Wayne resident, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.