Why you still can’t ditch your ca­ble box

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

Not that long ago, the clunky ca­ble box looked like it was on its way out. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment was pres­sur­ing ca­ble com­pa­nies to open up their near-monopoly on boxes to more com­pe­ti­tion, and in­dus­try leader Com­cast promised apps that could ren­der some boxes ob­so­lete. That was then. To­day, the vast ma­jor­ity of cus­tomers still need to rent a box to get full ser­vice from ca­ble providers, and those box-re­plac­ing apps re­main elu­sive. Here’s what hap­pened.

Ditch­ing the box

In 2015, tech com­pa­nies and con­sumer ad­vo­cates were push­ing the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion to open up the ca­ble-box mar­ket. The goal was to let you buy a ca­ble box the way you’d pick up a new smart­phone, spar­ing you the ex­pense of leas­ing them from ca­ble com­pa­nies for about $6 and up a month. The ca­ble in­dus­try and Hol­ly­wood hated the FCC’s Fe­bru­ary 2016 plan to “un­lock the box.” They pointed out that TV-watch­ing apps were al­ready avail­able - more on that be­low and laid out an in­dus­try pro­posal for new apps that could re­place ca­ble boxes.

Amid in­dus­try push­back, the FCC’s pro­posed rules lan­guished ahead of the 2016 elec­tion. Af­ter­ward, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s new FCC chair­man, Ajit Pai, shelved them per­ma­nently. The in­dus­try is no longer push­ing its app pro­posal with the FCC, said Brian Di­etz, a spokesman for the ca­ble lobby group NCTA. And he noted that some ca­ble and satel­lite com­pa­nies have launched apps that let cus­tomers watch video with­out a ca­ble box.

Where, oh where, are those apps?

But most ca­ble TV cus­tomers still need a box. The in­dus­try has lit­tle mo­ti­va­tion to get rid of rented ca­ble boxes or to keep its prom­ises with­out pres­sure from reg­u­la­tors, said John Bergmayer, se­nior coun­sel of the pub­lic ad­vo­cacy group Pub­lic Knowl­edge, in a fil­ing to the FCC. In 2015, Com­cast launched a box-free ca­ble ser­vice in Bos­ton called Stream, de­signed for phones, tablets and com­put­ers. At the time, the com­pany said it would roll out to all users by early 2016.

Stream, how­ever, re­mains lim­ited to Bos­ton and Chicago, although Com­cast re­port­edly in­tends to re­launch it as a broader “In­stant” ser­vice be­fore the end of Septem­ber. The com­pany says net neu­tral­ity rules and reg­u­la­tors un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion hin­dered Stream’s roll­out. It wants the FCC to spike these rules , which bar in­ter­net providers from fa­vor­ing their own con­tent. Com­cast also said in April 2016 that it was work­ing with Roku and Sam­sung to de­velop apps that, later that year, could re­place ca­ble boxes.

And it did start test­ing a Roku app in Jan­uary, although cus­tomers still need a ca­ble box while the ser­vice is in “beta.” One more draw­back: Us­ing the Roku app won’t be free if cus­tomers want it to work with more than one TV. The Sam­sung app, mean­while, re­mains un­der de­vel­op­ment. Com­cast wouldn’t com­ment be­yond blam­ing net neu­tral­ity for the de­lays.

In 2015, Char­ter and Time Warner Ca­ble started of­fer­ing apps that could re­place ca­ble boxes in some mar­kets. Nearly two years later, Char­ter says it’s now “test­ing” a ca­ble-re­place­ment app, Spec­trum Stream. (Char­ter bought Time Warner Ca­ble in 2016.) The app is avail­able in New York City upon re­quest; dur­ing a re­cent in­quiry, a cus­tomer ser­vice rep pushed a more ex­pen­sive tra­di­tional “triple play” TV, in­ter­net and phone pack­age in­stead.

Ca­ble-box free TV ga­lore

The ca­ble lobby is right to point out that there are plenty of box-free TV apps avail­able. They’re just not re­ally aimed at the 94 mil­lion tra­di­tional ca­ble and satel­lite cus­tomers. “Cord cut­ters” have lots of op­tions for in­ter­net video be­yond Net­flix. On­line-ca­ble ser­vices from Dish, Sony, Hulu and YouTube let you watch live TV and record it for later. (AT&T’s DirecTV Now’s DVR hasn’t launched yet.) These ser­vices don’t fully re­place tra­di­tional ca­ble ser­vice. Ma­jor chan­nels aren’t al­ways avail­able, there have been some ser­vice qual­ity glitches, and they’ve only at­tracted an es­ti­mated few mil­lion sub­scribers. To watch in­ter­net-based TV on a TV, you prob­a­bly need a gad­get like a Roku, a Chrome­cast stick or Ap­ple TV. These don’t have monthly fees like ca­ble boxes do.

Com­cast: The bun­dle ef­fect

Even with­out these con­sumer-friendly apps, Com­cast has been able to draw video cus­tomers via its up­graded ca­ble-box sys­tem, X1, which has in­te­grated Net­flix and is ex­pected to add YouTube. It is also a mas­ter at get­ting cus­tomers to pay for more than one ser­vice. In the sec­ond quar­ter, Com­cast lost 34,000 video cus­tomers, a deeper loss than last year. It added cus­tomers for the full year in 2016, its first an­nual in­crease in a decade. Over­all, ca­ble and satel­lite TV have lost 4 mil­lion cus­tomers over the past two years, says re­search firm SNL Ka­gan.

Com­cast’s in­ter­net cus­tomers rose 175,000. Rev­enue from the in­ter­net arm could get a fur­ther boost if Trump’s FCC rolls back net neu­tral­ity rules, as ex­pected. Com­cast is also open­ing new lines of busi­ness, such as a new cell­phone ser­vice that started in May. The film and theme park busi­nesses in the NBC Uni­ver­sal arm also grew sharply dur­ing the quar­ter. Net in­come rose 24 per­cent to $2.51 bil­lion, or 52 cents per share. Rev­enue in­creased 9.8 per­cent to $21.17 bil­lion.—AP

PHILADEL­PHIA: This file photo shows a ca­ble box on top of a tele­vi­sion set in Philadel­phia. —AP

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