back to article Death to clunky, creaky rip-off cable boxes – here's how it will happen

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is trying to kill off one of life's most frustrating rip-offs: the clunky, outdated cable box that you are pressured to "rent" from your cable provider. Under a new "notice of proposed rulemaking" put forward by the regulator's chairman Tom Wheeler, all cable companies will be …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    > an effort to regulate "video navigation devices."

    Oh, the irony is breathtaking.

    So a cable company telling their customers that they have no choice other than their box is not regulation?

    It far surpasses mere regulation. It's downright monopolistic bullying.

  2. Number6

    They sort of fixed it for cable modems, you can rent the box they supply or buy your own. There's still the speed bump of being able to buy a modern modem that is properly supported by the cable company, although I can understand why they'd want to do some basic quality control on a new product. I bought my own cable modem a year ago because the one they supplied was old and crap. Given the saved rental costs I'm probably now into the "free" part of ownership and it's done a decent job. The box supports IPv6 too, which their clunky old one didn't.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Thing is, since the cable companies settled on DOCSIS, cable internet has seen steady progress, and with DOCSIS 3.1 1Gbps over copper coax is tantalizingly close. So that's saying something. I think most of the push for DOCSIS came from the likes of Motorola and company (IOW, the cable modem makers) who weren't too pleased with having to tune their cable modems for different ISPs.

      Now, there is a CableCARD standard out there to allow for a third-party STB to interact with a cable company. Look at the back of a cable STB and you just may find the CableCARD slot secured with a CARD in it. Problem is, for whatever reason, those boxes aren't available to the average consumer. Then there's the matter of the rental fees for those CARDs: usually almost as high as the boxen: at those rates, why bother?

      1. Dabooka Silver badge

        Are those CableCARD ports

        the pcmcia slots I've often seen? I liken those to the marevllous 'Feature Connector' one used to find on old 16bit VGA cards. I'm still looking the what that feature actually was.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Are those CableCARD ports

          The VESA Feature Connector. That was intended for the likes of MPEG-2 decoder cards (that were needed in the late 90's to let computers watch DVDs at a watchable rate) and 3D Accelerator cards. The Feature Connector meant they could hook up to the graphics memory without having to go through the computer bus. I think that faded because bus standard kept changing and it became easier to just use the VGA piggyback method. Some like the 3dfx Voodoos simply switched between the base card and it, others (usually DVD decoders) used chroma-keying.

  3. xybyrgy

    Happy Dance


  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is LONG overdue but they missed one thing.

    Competition in the Cable TV set top tuner market is long overdue but the FCC already missed the most important issue.

    MANDATE that the first 125 Channels (that can be tuned in with the receiver already in your TV) are transmitted "in the clear" starting at channel 2 and up to 125 IN FULL 1080P and consecutively sequenced without ANY duplication BEFORE any set top box is required.

    The whole HD thing is a baldface lie by the cable and satellite ripoff artists. All they are doing is upscaling 720 on most of the channels. Almost no one who has a TV has a 4:3 style, picture tube unit anymore. Stop charging for something that isn't really HD and stop format changing crappy sources and duplicating channels and you'll have a whole lot more bandwidth.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: This is LONG overdue but they missed one thing.

      Have an upvote, AC. The FCC took away ClearQAM (unencrypted HD up to 1080i) a couple of years ago after being lobbied by Comcast. Now, turning around, forcing ClearQAM would solve this issue for them (up to a certain number of channels ala 256-QAM, etc). For the people with old tube 4:3 TVs, there are $30-50 boxes that will convert ClearQAM to analog (most of the people having 4:3 are either elderly or of lesser means).

      I think having all channels in 1080P would be a bit of a dream, though, as the current ATSC spec only goes up to 1080i. Only the odd sports or movie channel transmits 1080P, usually via satellite, and a lot of smaller market TV stations will loathe paying out for upgrading to the other ATSC specs (4K, etc) in the near future when they've had less than 10 years of use since they were forced to be digital in 2009 (the cutoff date for most analog stations unless they were low-power/fringe areas/repeaters).

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: This is LONG overdue but they missed one thing.

        The reason the cable companies were able to lobby to turn off ClearQAM is because they can (fair enough) claim unfair treatment versus digital satellite (DirectTV and Dish), who HAVE to encrypt their channels due to their signals transmitting nationwide yet not every channel is allowed nationwide due to local network restrictions which are actually mandated by the FCC (due to them originating in OTA broadcast which the FCC regulates). Unlike satellite, cable companies, being capable of operating in local clusters, are capable of tailoring their channel lineups per area to deal with the local channels without too much interference.

        So you see, it's kind of a no-win situation unless the FCC takes the bold step to declare that cable and satellite are too different to be seen as subject to the same regulations.

        PS. Even before the ClearQAM shutoff, ONLY local channels were transmitted in the clear; fair enough, as all the other channels are paywalled while the local channels were being sent in the clear OTA anyway. I loved that capability since it let me record NBC during the Olympics (I have an alternate system set up in time for Rio).

    2. Tom 13

      Re: This is LONG overdue but they missed one thing.

      Two things. The second is the right to record the shows to watch later. Granted that gets more into DCMA abuse but it's the main reason we part with $21.90 x2 per month for our DVRs.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm "celebrating"

    I'm celebrating cutting the cord on the first week of this year.

    I spent 1 hour and 45 minutes on the phone with FIVE different cable company "customer service representatives" trying to change (downgrade to a lower streaming package with Roku) my cable service.

    Representative (1) was nice and told me about the package I was hoping to change to...but was not allowed by [her] computer system to do it. Gave me an alternate, direct Roku package telephone number to call.

    Rep (2) (first rep on second call) did not know that the package I was looking for existed, or what a "Roku" was at all.

    Rep (3) (2nd rep on second call) found the package but could not switch me over

    Rep (4) (3rd rep on second call) tried to switch me over but told me that I was not being allowed to change my subscription. I had a deluxe package...and I would have to, essentially, die with a deluxe package. After expressing my utter lack of acceptance of that statement, he finally connected me to

    Rep (5) (4th rep on second call) who finally replied that although I could downgrade, I couldn't downgrade to the (new to the cable company) streaming package I wanted because that package was only available to new subscribers. I could downgrade my package, using the same delivery options I currently have...for a $10 / month savings.

    I told them "No wonder everyone is leaving you, you're impossible to deal with"...and turned off my cable subscription. I upgraded my internet package...and then went out and bought my own Roku.

    Happy days! Saving 52% by killing [American TV] crap I never watched anyway. I was willing to pay the cable company a rental fee on a Roku but by being impossible to deal with...they saved me a bundle by having me buy my own and turn off all their supplied video services.

    Bye bye, cable!

  6. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

    thankfully not new for me

    I've owned my own Tivos for many years. Cox Communications in my area allows the use of "alternative" boxes and rents the multi-stream decoder card required to decrypt/descramble the channels for $3/month. The downside of Tivo is a high up-front cost (about USD$700 including lifetime activation) but I own it. Yes, to some, the box from the cable company SEEMS cheaper at about $15/month, but consider that my Tivos are NINE YEARS OLD (and still functioning very well, thank you). Do that math and I came out ahead a long time back.

    I'll be upgrading to newer models soon but have certainly gotten my money's worth out of the existing boxes. The only thing I don't like about the newer Tivos is that you must CHOOSE between OTA or cable - they are different models now. My old Series3 Tivos can do both simultaneously.

    1. Wade Burchette Silver badge

      Re: thankfully not new for me

      Same here. I bought a TiVo on sale. When I bought it at, the price for it and lifetime service was under $600. Even when I factored in the CableCard rental fee, the MoCA adapter (which was not required but TiVo works much better with it), the MoCA filter, and extra TiVo minis, my return-on-investment was 3 years. A DVR I turned in was 8 years old. So I expect this TiVo to last at least that long. Plus, there is a free Java program that lets me download recorded TV shows off it.

  7. Roq D. Kasba

    Free State Foundation

    Bodies with Free, Democratic, People's etc in their titles rarely are.

  8. asdf

    Death to cable(and sat) box

    Get yourself a Roku and a digital antenna for well under $200 and not only do you never have to see or pay for those horrible boxes again but you also are no longer forced to give ESPN 8 bucks a month to pay felons to commit violence on one another. At least the violence channel had Ow my balls lol.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Death to cable(and sat) box

      Unless like me you're in a bad reception area. All the local channels break up in my area, so it's another supplier or no TV, period.

  9. OllyL

    I thought they'd already done this way back in the 90's by mandating the cablecard format?

    Even 'modern' boxes have to have one or more inside, and the cableco must provide you with one if you ask for it.

    It's a fun ride for sure (took three calls and two trips to my nearest Comcast office), but they did indeed supply me with two without too much of a song and a dance.

    I hear the newer TiVO's can do all the VOD stuff that the X1 service does too.

    They still charge you $7.50/month for the card, but that's better than the outrageous rental fees they charge otherwise...

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      CableCARD's been on a bumpy ride, plus there's the matter of finding a third-party box capable of using it, particularly the V2 cards that allow you to do Video On Demand.

      1. Olly Lobley

        I have a friend with the 4th generation TiVo, and he's totally enamoured with it.

        I wasn't quite prepared to drop that amount on a box that I use very infrequently, but also wanted something that could handle plex/netflix/amazon video - I ended up with a Samsung GX-SM530CF...they can be had on ebay for under $75 if you're patient and meet all my needs...

        If I were starting from scratch tomorrow, I'd be sorely tempted by the newer Tivo and the Tivo minis or whatever they're called (which can stream from the full-fat box), as it's rare there are >1 TV's on in my house watching broadcast television

  10. Mikel

    The content has negative value

    So, whatever... Comcast doesn't like it? Yay. But it's not going to make people want to stream their TV just to have an Android or iOS or Android app to watch that drek on instead of a cable box.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A First Step

    This is a good step, but why do we need a box at all? Even if they don't want to go back to ClearQAM they could still work out a system to enable TVs to do the decryption themselves though some sort of "

    activation" process similar to what they do now with the boxes. They just need to get the cable cos to work with the TV manufacturers a bit.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: A First Step

      Actually, there's a roadblock to that. They proposed something like that called the Downloadable Conditional Access System (DCAS). Only problem was the FCC had already demanded that the control module be transportable, meaning it can't be part of a TV for fear of lock-in. So it was CableCARD or bust.

      Meanwhile, the FCC is trying to work on a successor to CableCARD called AllVid. I believe Cox's Contour system is at least partially based on AllVid.

  12. dotdavid


    I often wondered why the cable companies in the US do this sort of thing. Virgin in the UK give you a box (well, it's included in your package price) and will replace it for free if it breaks. The flipside is that you can't really buy your own with more features. They do try to sell you better packages that come with better boxes though (originally HD, though that's standard now, or boxes that can record TV).

    Why is the UK so different?

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Interesting

      The only difference in the US being that baseline channels, for historical reasons, are sent in analog in the clear, meaning cable-ready analog TVs didn't need the box at all. It's only when you get to digital cable that the boxes are a necessity, and the cable companies played it cagey by making sure, except for the local channels until recently, again for historical reasons, all the channels were encrypted. In other words, it's closer to your situation now but there are still legacy traces.

      1. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

        Re: Interesting

        "The only difference in the US being that baseline channels, for historical reasons, are sent in analog in the clear, meaning cable-ready analog TVs didn't need the box at all."

        In my area, that changes next month. To free up bandwidth, Cox is removing the analog channels (2-70) AND encrypting/scrambling them - not just xmitting digitally - so that even new digital TVs must have a small box from them (or your own plus their cable card) to receive anything. They graciously provide the mini-box free for the first year of course. After that it's $4/month/box. Since I have Tivos with cable cards, it doesn't affect me but for my elderly mother who just watches "basic" cable, it will be a $12/month increase next year when the "free" boxes are no longer free...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Interesting

      Because, ironically, the UK has competition in cable providers whereas in the US the vast majority of homes are supplied by only a single cable TV provider. Satellite (like SKY) does compete against cable TV, but you still need cable to get internet service because DSL is virtually unknown in the consumer market in the US. Many people, particularly those who rent or live in flats, cannot install satellite dishes so they are stuck with cable.

      This is one of the reasons that cable companies are normally the most hated companies in the US (along with cell phone providers)

      1. dotdavid

        Re: Interesting

        "Because, ironically, the UK has competition in cable providers whereas in the US the vast majority of homes are supplied by only a single cable TV provider"

        AFAIK Virgin Media is the only major cable TV provider in the UK, there may be small local ones but hardly adequate competition. And even in the past where there were a few more major providers (NTL, Telewest etc) they never served the same areas. I guess the only difference then is the widespread availability of DSL.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Interesting

          The reason DSL doesn't work too well in America mainly falls to two things: (lack of) population density and the historic wiring of telephone lines. DSL bandwidth falls off over distance, so if the local telephone exchange is too far away (due to being in a rural setting or because the old telephone wiring was too convoluted), then you're SOL. I should know, I looked into DSL back when home broadband was in its infancy, and the telephone company (who BTW is usually as much a local monopoly as the cable company) said I was in the extreme range of the technology, meaning I was likely to have issues).

          1. Tom 13

            Re: population density and the historic wiring of telephone lines

            True within certain limits.

            Remember the whole reason broadband as such took off the way it did was that the Telco's demanded legislation to fix the 56K limit for modems back when real modems were all the rage. I expect that were it not for that legislation we'd have modems today that would out perform DSL and you could still do it over your POTS line.

            Also remember the current cable monopoly is an advent of the 1985-1995 cable consolidation. Up to that point cable companies were all local things that typically had a bunch of antennas sitting on top of a mountain a couple miles away to receive OTA broadcasts and send it down the valley to houses that otherwise wouldn't get decent reception of those OTA signals. Those local outfits were usually barely breaking even at the end of the year. Yes there were some cable access channels and what not, but mostly it was about getting those OTA signals to places that otherwise couldn't get them. Same thing in the big cities, but for different causes.

            1. Vic

              Re: population density and the historic wiring of telephone lines

              the Telco's demanded legislation to fix the 56K limit for modems back when real modems were all the rage. I expect that were it not for that legislation we'd have modems today that would out perform DSL and you could still do it over your POTS line.

              You've clearly never worked on modems,

              Go have a read of the Shannon–Hartley theorem (often know as "Shannon's Law"). A narrowband modem is never going to get near DSL speeds.

              V.90 modems could only work over a single analogue connection - if the line didn't meet that criterion, it would fall back to V.34 (or worse). This isn't a telco conspiracy - that's just how noisy lines work.


  13. Public Citizen

    Same old song

    These are the same arguments made by "Ma Bell", and for the same reasons.

    "The Phone Company" resisted the opening up of the phone system to third party devices such as answering machines and third party manufactured telephones using newer technologies such as "cordless phones" and eventually modems.

    History has recorded the explosion in opportunities that the breaking of ~that~ monopoly created.

    This is just a recitation of the same old excuses for the same old reasons by another industry that has gotten fat and lazy through the restriction of competition.

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