FCC Chairman Wheeler Wants to Unleash Silicon Valley Innovation on Your Dusty Old Cable Box
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has a plan to transform cable television. No, it doesn't involve breaking up big monopolies like Comcast; Wheeler wants to transform the technology at the point where consumers interact with their cable television networks: by unlocking the cable box.
Wheeler outlined a proposal this week that would do just that. In fact, the FCC created the hashtag #unlockthebox to drive the point of the regulatory change home with consumers.
Here are the basics of the proposal: Right now, people rent out cable boxes from the same companies they're subscribing to get access to cable television. It's expensive to rent when you could buy, and on top of that, cable boxes are known to be technological dinosaurs (though good try, X1).
Cable boxes are slow, freeze when you're searching for channels, and are usually huge pieces of hardware compared to your Roku or Apple TV. In a world of zippy iPhones and user-friendly tv streaming boxes, the UI for cable is painfully behind the times.
Instead of forcing cable companies to improve their boxes, the FCC proposal seeks to form an open industry standards group to systematize and provide all the specs a Silicon Valley company might need to create its own TV box that can provide access to cable networks.
Microsoft's Xbox One tried to do this in a way, but what Wheeler's envisioning is something closer to the telephone. It used to be that you paid the telephone company for access to its network, and also had to rent a (clunky old) telephone from the network as well. After that limitation was lifted, consumers benefitted from an entire industry competing and pumping innovation into telephone handsets.
Wheeler made this analogy in his Op-Ed for Re/Code on Wednesday, in which he argued that his proposal "would create a framework for providing device manufacturers, software developers, and others the information they needed to introduce innovative new technologies, while at the same time maintaining strong security, copyright and consumer protections."
He also argued that nothing in his proposal would change a cable company's ability to package or price its programming, but that doesn't mean the industry will like it.
But while Wheeler's proposal is undoubtedly going to be very unpopular with cable companies, who never like any change imposed on their business model (especially from the government), "unlocking the box" so that technology companies can compete to create new ways of interacting with content from cable television networks could transform the industry in the long run -- and could save cable TV from itself.
The "cord cutting" phenomenon has arrived, and one way to lure customers back to traditional pay-TV might be to enlist Silicon Valley's help to make it look, feel, and interact a little less traditionally.
Besides being some necessary medicine for the stubborn cable TV industry, the FCC's move has been viewed as a positive move for consumers, since they're currently stuck paying too much for a piece of technology they don't own and which often doesn't work that well anyway.
The National Hispanic Media Coalition praised Wheeler's announcement in a statement released to Latin Post on Wednesday.
"By initiating a proceeding, the FCC is taking an important step that would affect the 99 percent of consumers who pay hundreds of dollars each year to rent cable boxes," stated the NHMC's VP of policy, Michael Scurato.
"The promising slate of reforms proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler could potentially allow consumers greater access to the content that they pay for, granting greater control over when, where, and how they want to access it, on the device they choose, without being locked into constant, unnecessary fees and excruciating installation and repair appointments," he added. "This type of environment would be a tremendous boon for viewers wanting to find the diverse programming that speaks to the needs of their communities and, potentially, allow many content creators a clear path around cable company gatekeepers and into consumers' homes."
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