Why you still can’t ditch your cable box
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 Tvwatching apps were already available 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.
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.
Comcast 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 remains under development.
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” such an app, Spectrum Stream, in nearly all markets. (Charter bought Time Warner Cable in 2016.)
AT&T, the owner of Directv, and Verizon have no apps that can replace boxes entirely for traditional cable and satellite TV service.
Separately, in 2015, Comcast launched a box-free cable service in Boston called Stream, designed for phones, tablets and computers and aimed at younger users. At the time, the company said it would roll out to all users by early 2016. Stream remains limited to Boston and Chicago.
Cable-box free TV galore
The cable lobby is right to point out that there are plenty of box-free TV apps available. Like Comcast’s Stream, they’re just not really aimed at the 94 million traditional cable and satellite customers stuck with box fees. They’re for “cord cutters.”
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.
The cable box was supposed to be on the way out when this photo was taken in 2007, but the federal government’s pressure to change is gone and boxreplacing apps remain elusive.