back to article Big telco proxies go full crazy over cable box plan

The decision by the FCC to tackle the national rip-off that is cable boxes has entered crazy land with the publication of the proposed rules and formal backing by the Obama administration. A public comment period has formally opened on the proposal [PDF] to force cable companies to adopt a standard format for their information …

  1. a_yank_lurker

    Rear Guard Action of an industry in retreat

    The pattern repeats, a newish idea threatens to finally disrupt the older ways of doing business and fleecing customers. The old guard refuses to adapt to the changes but tries to put the genie back in the bottle. Streaming video, cellphones, etc. are changing viewing habits and communication habits. The ones who adapt will survive, the others will die.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: Rear Guard Action of an industry in retreat, and the Few in Dire Straits Need of Change of Feed

      Howdy, a_yank_lurker,

      Methinks it is much more a fools' war of losing battles against new information and escaping secrets, which are so clearly revealing how corrupt perverted elite executive order systems abuse and misuse populations for business and money, by means and memes which are slowly but inexorably going viral and virulent and becoming general knowledge, than anything lesser such as changed viewing and communications habits.

      In ye olde days, there would be the grand burning of books to try and stem the deemed inconvenient and disruptive tide of growing shared intelligence with viable ideas; now have the ineffective blunt tools of repression and oppression morphed into a virtual cosh .......

      And as for industries in retreat and the aforementioned titled Few, ......

      The ones who adapt will survive, the others will die
      ........ such is surely certainly their fate and destiny, and much sooner than ever they expected given the voracious nature of the new cyber medium and ITs rabid virtual media machines.

      And here be another one of those crazy fool coshes ....... ...... targeting a person of interest. What desperate, sub-prime nonsense will Gormless George be spouting next?

      1. Martin Summers Silver badge

        Re: Rear Guard Action of an industry in retreat, and the Few in Dire Straits Need of Change of Feed

        Someone's changed your programming for the worse amanfrommars. That drivel made no sense and I prefer bots to stay out of politics cos let's face it, you're not likely to have a clue.

        1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

          The Inconvenient Truth is a Bugger to Counter when a Gem to Polish

          Some others would say it makes far too much sense for you to uncomfortably handle, MS.

          Do you deny you are very easily programmed by media to receive/believe what IT wants you to believe/receive, just a dumb robot?

  2. Wade Burchette

    Won't someone think of the children!

    I see the Cable Co's are using the "think of the children" logical fallacy.

    << "It is simply bewildering that President Obama would come out in support of the FCC's controversial proposal to change the way we watch television at home. The FCC's set-top box proposal raises serious issues about privacy and data collection of children's viewing habits," raves the Digital Citizens Alliance.>>

    Are third party set-top boxes going to be programmed to tune to the porn channels all the time? You can already get a TiVo box, and how is that any more or less safe for kids than the TiVo from the cable company? If you want to know the real reason why Cable Co is against this, it is money.

    I bought a refurbished TiVo Roamio with lifetime service, a MoCA adapter, and a MoCA filter for $600. You can buy a TiVo Mini for $120. So with 3 TV's, my total cost was $960. Doing this, I cut my cable bill by $25/month. In 39 months, I come out on top. Think about how much money the cable companies would lose if just 1/10th of their customers did what I did. If you want to know why CableCard never took off it is because it was not in the financial interests of the cable companies to make it a success.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Won't someone think of the children!

      I don't know about cable, but it's strange. In the UK, there is no "renting" of set top boxes as such. They are "free" (hidden/absorbed costs in the first year) to customers. But that is because usually if not cable, then some satellite has some competition. So they need a hook for the customers, and it's usually "a free box".

      However, existing customers would pay £300 or so for a new/additional box. Then another £12 or so if they want an additional feed/subscription (one for each room/box).

      New customers get the works for almost half the price. Existing customers risk paying twice the price for an older box and older service (non-HD, no recording etc).

      1. AndrueC Silver badge

        Re: Won't someone think of the children!

        I don't know about cable, but it's strange. In the UK, there is no "renting" of set top boxes as such.

        This is about cable in the UK.

        You're quite right though that it's something of an anomaly. It's probably allowed to continue because there is only ever one cable provider per area in the UK. In fact there may only be one provider for the entire country - I can't remember if Hull (KCOM) has its own. Either way it means that once you cancel your cable service in the UK the box simply has no further use.

        At least a Sky box will continue to offer a fair selection of channels without a subscription. All you need is a dish which you can fit yourself and away you go. A VM box is (I believe) useless without a subscription and useless without a cable connection.

      2. Visionman

        Re: Won't someone think of the children!

        I don't know about cable, but it's strange. In the UK, there is no "renting" of set top boxes as such. They are "free"....


        Virgin TiVo - rented. EE TV box - rented. Sky Q - rented. So not the case.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Won't someone think of the children!

          Sorry, but I don't think that is the case.

          Over the past few years I've had both Sky and Virgin, both were cancelled and I was never asked to return the boxes.. which would be the case if they were rented!

          1. Mark Allen

            Re: Won't someone think of the children!

            Look at the bottom of the boxes - it will say "Property of Sky/VM/etc". Same with the routers supplied by some ISPs, which is why someone like VM will replace routers for free.

            TV boxes or old routers - it is the same deal. End of contract the ISP should come and collect the old hardware for disposal. (Especially with EU WEEE rules) Very rarely happens. Kit is obsolete so quickly they don't usually bother. I know a number of people who still have "waiting to be collected" kit of some form or other.

  3. redpawn

    What's the point in allowing a monopoly

    if it doesn't serve the public good.

    Utilities have to be regulated because the market is mostly closed to competition. Keep this in your file for when you contact your politician. We see cable crying foul while blocking cooperative broadband. Cable can't stand real competition.

  4. Mark 85

    I find the links about funding, connections to companies and politicians and what the Digital Citizens Alliance has accomplished and is attempting to accomplish "interesting" to say the least. I'll leave it the reader to do some research on their own due to the nature of things legal. There seems to be a lot allegations so.. judge for yourself.

    Then again, there is the Google/White House connection.

    Having looked at that, I'm not surprised the cable companies are upset. They stand to lose a lot of money (profit) if consumers can buy their own cable box. In some ways, it would be like if a Telco couldn't sell you a phone and bill you plus interest over a couple of years. Locally, the different telcos sell the same phone at different prices. But you can bet your bottom dollar they don't lose any profit on the deal.

    If this goes through, we, as consumers and buyers, are up the proverbial creek without the proverbial oar as any company that wants to bleed us dry for their profit will just go to the appropriate agency in government and get a "ruling"... in their favor.

    1. James Loughner

      No No No

      It is like when Bell/ATT forced user to use only their phones on the tel network. That could only be stopped and was by the government.

      1. Barry Rueger

        Re: No No No

        The phone company owned the phone, the network, the switches, and all of the phone wiring inside your house.

        And they swore up and down that letting customers buy a phone, instead of renting one, would present a significant risk to their networks, and to your own safety.

        Phones in those days were nearly indestructible, so one installation could deliver years, or even decades of monthly rentals.

        Plus if you wanted a model other than a big standard rotary phone, or one that was a colour other than black, you paid another monthly charge, forever.

        Damn. This really does sound like my cel phone company.....

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Imagine if the cellular market worked the same way

      We wouldn't have anything that resembled a modern smartphone, because the iPhone could have never happened. We'd be using something with the same form factor as a Nokia 5110, built like a tank to insure it would last forever so they never had to replace it. We would rent it for $20/month and would keep using the same one for as long as you were with that carrier. The only time you could get an upgrade would be if the technology in your phone got so out of date that it wouldn't support their network upgrades, or if you moved to a higher priced package like the option to get one with a camera for an extra $10/month!

      When you went to a new carrier, you'd be more likely to get a refurbished phone turned in by one of their former customers than to get a new one. The manufacturers would not sell you a phone, and if you did manage to acquire one somehow the carrier would refuse to activate it on their network, so it was pointless to even try. If we lived in that world, we wouldn't know that far better phones in terms of interface, performance and overall capability were possible. We'd think recent innovations in the last few years like a camera and 160x120 1.5" color LCD display were fine, because that would be the state of the art since there wouldn't be anything else we could compare to.

      If the FCC came along trying to set rules to open up competition, the cellular companies would be playing the same games the cable companies are, claiming that allowing phones they don't control onto their network would cause all sorts of problems. They'd argue that they are pushing technology forward every bit as fast as a competitive market would, and claim almost no one would be willing to pay hundreds of dollars up front to own their cell phone so it would be a lot of expensive effort for no benefit. They'd try to make it a partisan issue, because there's no quicker way to get a government initiative bogged down than to make people on one side think it is a scheme that benefits the people in the other party.

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: Imagine if the cellular market worked the same way

        You know, I could actually live with that.

  5. David Roberts

    Trying to relate this to the UK

    There has traditionally been only one country wide supplier of paid TV, which is Sky. However this has been via satellite. Sky has been kept mostly honest by Virgin Media which offers cable to about 50% of the country. BT has now entered the market place but this is too recent to skew traditional marketing.

    We don't seem to have the extreme customer abuse reported from the USA but the services are tied to the suppliers' hardware using smart cards to authenticate. Charging is high, but most kit seems to be modern and well featured. As far as I know I can't buy a 3rd party Sky or Virgin box.

    Is the USA market held back by the lack of alternatives?

    In the UK we have a reasonable service from free to air terrestrial and satellite providers so nobody really needs a cable box unless they want the extra channels. I assume that there is no nationwide satellite broadcast service in the USA? If so I do wonder why because Europe as a whole is covered by satellite broadcasters.

    1. Wade Burchette

      Re: Trying to relate this to the UK

      There are two nationwide satellite broadcast companies in the US and they too require you to rent the equipment. One of those satellite companies is now owned by AT&T.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Trying to relate this to the UK


      If Sky is making a profit, while getting to use your sewers, and utility infratructure for free (I.e. you pay to build and maintain these services), you sir are getting it right up the keister.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: AC

        In case anyone else reads your post thinking your talking about facts. Sky and Virgin and anyone else who uses kit and services, utilities and lines that they do not own or maintain pay a fee to those who do.

        Quite a lot of companies resell BT and other competitors lines when they cannot get one installed themselves. But that is mainly as BT was a monopoly. Lots of talk and trading in the background to get things like that up and running in the market I guess. But now a lot of nodes/servers/exchanges have multiple providers kit installed, it's just the national connections that are rented out and the last few yards if on BTs lines.

    3. Warm Braw

      Re: Trying to relate this to the UK

      It was originally, as far as I remember, the intenton of the EU to have a common platform, but the whole thing kind of lost steam when it came to the "added value" elements such as EPGs, conditional access, interactive services.

      There isn't any technical reason why Sky couldn't use a standard CAM for encryption - and you could get "unofficial" third party solutions that would work with Sky viewing cards for a short while until Sky closed that particular loophole. However, given the constant battle with hackers, I suspect Sky feels its security is better maintained by keeping everything inside its own box. They also value the fact that the user interface for customers is universal and under their control: I think they generally score pretty highly for usability.

      As you say, in the UK, the range of FTA channels means that the pay TV market has to be attractive to new customers and high standing charges (eg for box rental) simply deter people who have an alternative.

      I think it's more of an issue that the people who own the UK broadcast platforms are also program suppliers: I don't personally think this is in the interests of consumers as it leads to what one might charitably call conflicts of interest.

    4. Adrian 4

      Re: Trying to relate this to the UK

      The other curious thing is the way the telcos, the FCC and the government relate. The telcos seem to criticise the government for listening to the FCC. But in the UK, Ofcom is a branch of government and does what it's told, rather than trying to get a policy approved by politicians.

    5. User4574

      Re: Trying to relate this to the UK

      Traditionally the satellite pay-tv market was far more open so if you wanted to subscribe to Sky Multichannels you just needed a cheap 80-100cm dish pointed at 19.2E. Any receiver-decoder that supported VideoCrypt, of which there were dozens of suppliers available, just worked.

      Subscribe to Sky today and you can only get a box sold by them, even though you own it, many of the features depend upon an active subscription and you simply can't use a third party box.

      Cable services here are equally hobbled, you rent the box and modem for your TV and broadband and using a third party box is even illegal in some cases, so for us this has been par for the course for nearly twenty years.

      Our friends in the US are not forced to rent a cable box, they do have the option to use CableCARD which just slots into a third party receiver, or TV, and decrypts the channels you've paid for. Likewise you can pop into Target and buy your own cable modem, and often a better one.

      Only in the US could you buy an HD HomeRun, get a CableCARD and then velcro a Raspberry Pi to the back of every TV in the house to watch whatever channels you desired.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @User4574 - cable card in the US

        There are exactly ZERO TVs that can take a cable card, and the only popular consumer gear that uses it is Tivo. There is the HDhomerun, and you used to be able to build a media center PC using a PCI tuner card that accepted a cable card until Microsoft pulled support for it in newer versions of Windows.

        Cable card is also limited - it is one way only so you can't do VOD or PPV, that only works with their boxes. What is funny is two way works just fine if you rent a Tivo from the cable company (of the ones that offer it as an option to rent) It turns out that the two way capability is proprietary, which is why the cable card standard doesn't support it. This was deliberately done by the cable companies to hobble card cable. There was a new standard that was supposed to replace it in the late 2000s called Tru2Way, but cable company obstructionism insured it was a failure.

    6. MR J

      Re: Trying to relate this to the UK

      I don't think you can compare them directly like that.

      My mother has DirectTV and the last box she had went out, they replaced it with one that was much older. Neither box she has had a HDMI port - Those (in her area at least) cost extra, and they retain ownership of the box, plus some things cost extra to turn on. They say they will "sell" equipment to you, but a DVB-S receiver that cost 5 times the retail cost of a similar box just makes it not worth while.

      In essence, customers are paying way over the odds for equipment that is generally crap.

      In the UK these cost are built in to Virgin and Sky packages. The hardware on Sky becomes yours and customers can buy and transfer used hardware if it's out of contract (your cost do not go down). Virgin Media retain ownership all of the time and will never activate used boxes. YouView boxes are mixed between closed systems and open systems, but they are more along the lines of what the FCC wants in the US.

      You can get 3rd party sky receivers (or could, not checked in the last couple of years), but the card does not update encryption details, so you need to keep your registered receiver to update the viewing card.

      The problem that caused a lot of this was that customers cloned equipment so they had to find a way to secure what they had. That is, Customers pushed providers into locking down these ecosystems. This is one reason why Virgin Media was originally skipped in Ireland, one person on the street paid for broadband and TV, but every home had it ;P... NTL used to allow you to have your own modems too (and enjoy a discount!), but again the cloning is what made them push for a closed system.

      If the FCC can dictate that the hardware will follow a standard AND be secure for the providers (no clone hardware!) then I think that would be great. I am not sure they will go down this path far enough for it to be a success.

      The USA has plenty of FTA content on SAT for customers to have but you will probably find that a lot of people either lack the knowledge or the time to research and go down such a path.

      I see nothing wrong with hardware "Rental/Leasing" and the closed ecosystem. The problem is that it is used as a price gouging tool. When a new "Retail" modem cost $70, and you are forced to buy one from your provider for $10 install + $10 month / 24 month minimum then customers should be mad. Two months of rental pays for hardware, but when it is crap then you can spend months on the phone line getting them to send out a replacement.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @MR J - Directv

        Directv doesn't charge extra for HDMI, but they do charge extra on older accounts for HD (it is included in newer accounts, if you sign up as a new customer today you can't even get SD equipment)

        It sounds like your mother has SD receivers which of course don't have HDMI outputs because they are designed to connect to a SD TV. The extra charge she was told about to get something with HDMI would have been the $10/month charge for HD service.

        She got a very old receiver because they haven't been making the SD receivers for years, so everything is refurbished. In a few years Directv will likely transition off SD entirely and replace everyone's old receivers with HD gear (but by then the ones they give you for these free/forced upgrades will probably be pretty old too...)

  6. That_Guy

    Shoe on the other foot...

    On the other hand, if I could get a Roku with a cable connector that could stream channels/on-demand to our various devices _and_ a per-channel à la carte plan. I'd maybe reconsider having cut the cord. Till then keep your ugly cable box in a location where the sun don't shine. I'll do the same with my cash.

  7. Disk0

    For competitive corporations

    they sure are scared of competition.

  8. Charles 9

    Plus there's a sense of urgency.

    The last bastion of boxless non-broadcast television is going away. Satellite has been all-digital for a while now, and TV-over-fiber has been all-digital from the start, but now cable companies are turning off their analog channels as well, meaning your "cable-ready" TV won't be anymore, as there's no uniform standard to tune into digital cable, especially not encrypted channels, so a standard IS needed, and pretty soon or the cable companies will have a stranglehold on their customers with no alternative in sight (broadcast usually only shows an extremely limited lineup, and as mentioned before satellite and fiber are no refuge). In fact, now would be a good time to get the satellite and fiber providers on the table as well and hammer out a universal television standard between all three of them so that one can use the same box no matter where the signal comes from.

  9. Mephistro

    Dear Digital Citizens Alliance:

    ..."The FCC's set-top box proposal raises serious issues about privacy and data collection of children's viewing habits,..."

    Could you please explain to us exactly how the current situation (closed source hardware and software in the set top boxes) helps protect children's -or anybody else's- privacy?

    Or how open source products put privacy in danger? It's quite obvious that, in a OSS scenario, it's orders of magnitude more difficult and -dangerous- for telcos and other actors to sneak some dodgy functions in the boxes.

    Please, take your time.

    1. Swarthy

      Re: Dear Digital Citizens Alliance:

      Well, that's a simple explanation: they closely guard your data because it's commercially valuable, so it only goes to "partners" that pay for it. If you get a third-party box, then the third-party could get that data, and then the CableCo won't be watching over your data to make sure it only falls into the "right" hands.

      Ergo, (some of) their profits your privacy is at risk.

  10. WhatMeWorry?

    I LoVe Comcast

    The cable companies have provided us with high-quality, low-priced services over 40 years.

    They have reinvested the small profits into using better coax, and better coax means better programming. It would be difficult for them to build a standard decoding box. For example, standard coax is so difficult to manufacture that they only purchase it.

    Can you imagine the confusion it would create if you could use a set top box on either the Comcast or the Time Warner cable networks? It's almost as bad as using non-Western Electric equipment on the AT&T network.

    And who would buy a Comcast set top box when leasing is the only option? Pity poor IBM when they were forced to sell their main frame computers instead of just leasing them.

    Keep Comcast Comcastic!

  11. ecofeco Silver badge

    Free market for customers...

    ...but socialism for corporations.

    Remember "free market" is just code for "free to bugger you without consequence."

  12. fidodogbreath

    Won't someone think of the shareholders!

    "Downes makes a series of eyebrow-raising claims, including the particularly wild one that cable companies actually lose money on their rented cable boxes."

    A corporation's sole raison d'etre is to return value to its shareholders. If cable companies do, in fact, lose money on box rentals, then they should be thrilled by this opportunity to shed an unprofitable line of business and return more value to the shareholder-owners whom they serve.

    It's not easy to lose money renting out a $200 cable box at $18/mo for 10+ years. But if they found a way, well you'd have to admire their skill and determination.

    Hard as it may be to believe, they must be telling the truth. Upstanding, beloved companies like Comcast and AT&T would never lie.

    1. Fatman

      Re: Won't someone think of the shareholders!

      <quote>Upstanding, beloved companies like Comcast and AT&T would never lie.</quote>

      If you TRULY believe THAT, then I have some swampland in Flori-DUH for sale!!!!! Cheap!

  13. JeffyPoooh

    '...ensure box manufacturers not replace ads...'

    "...ensure that new box manufacturers are not able to replace content providers' ads."

    The Cable or Satellite TV companies (in Canada) have occasionally done exactly that. That's on top of the Canadian TV channel clumsily replacing ads on the USA originated broadcast.

    A third layer of ad replacement would be amusing.

    1. kain preacher

      Re: '...ensure box manufacturers not replace ads...'

      They do the same here ion the US too. It's called insertion. IF in the US you ever seen how and ad starts off for one commercial and quick switches to another, that's insertion error.

      Oh then there is this little gem.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Teleco in the US has long been a rip off by global standards. There are only a handful of cable/ISPs and they are all hated.

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