Why you still can’t ditch your cable box

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Tali Ar­bel

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.

Matt Rourke, As­so­ci­ated Press file

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.

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