Pay-television subscribers in the United States currently pay around $20 billion a year to lease set-top boxes. Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, has tabled proposals to open up pay-television services to smart televisions and tablets. Pay-television providers have immediately condemned the policy plans, suggesting that market innovation is already opening up the television experience beyond the set-top box.
In the past, people had to rent their phone from the phone company. The FCC opened up the market, allowing people to connect telephones and modems of their choice to the telephone network.
The average American family apparently pays around $230 a year in receiver rental fees for satellite, cable and telco television services.
The FCC chairman suggests that customers should be able to choose how they access these services, either through the service provider interface on a set-top box or app, or through devices such as a tablet or smart TV using a competitive app or software. He proposes that service providers and their competitors should be able to differentiate and compete based on the experience they offer users, including the quality of the user interface and additional features.
He proposes that programming information, subscriber entitlements and the programming itself should be made available to the creators of competitive devices and navigation solutions using any published, transparent format that conforms to specifications set by an independent, open standards body.
The proposals suggest that service providers offer at least one content protection system that is openly licensed on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.
The commission does not propose to change the ability of a company to package and price its programming to its subscribers, or to limit the use of programming.
The effect of the proposals would be to allow consumers alternative means of accessing the programming for which they pay.
“Historically, issues like security and copyright have made opening up the set-top box market a challenge,” he wrote in an opinion piece. “Fortunately, advances in technology have made meeting those challenges and fulfilling this mandate achievable. For example, today’s smart TVs prove that we can preserve all the security and copyright protections of the set-top box without that actual box.”
The proposals make reference to the CableCARD system, a previous attempt to allow users to view and record digital programming without the use of a set-top box provided by a cable television company.
A subsequent system, sometimes referred to as AllVid, was announced by the FCC in 2010, intended to enable two-way services such as interactive program guides, pay- per-view, and video-on-demand. The initiative was not pursued.
The pay-television industry has generally resisted attempts to open up the set-top box market. The consumer electronics industry has conversely championed the opportunity to sell competing products.
A group calling itself the Future of TV Coalition, including AT&T, DISH Network, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, as well as set-top box suppliers Cisco and ARRIS, has already come out to contest the proposal.
In a statement it said: “The coalition’s 47 founding members are united in the belief that innovation and competition should drive the creative marketplace, not government mandates that have the potential to undermine and impede the best TV market in the world.”
Whether or not it is the best, the United States is certainly the biggest, most valuable, television market in the world. It is a market that the established ecosystem does not wish to see disrupted.
The group observed that some subscribers can already access their entire pay-television package using apps without a set-top box, which it described as “a trend that will only accelerate.” It said some networks, such as CBS, HBO and Showtime and sports leagues like Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association now offer stand-alone app-based streaming services that do not require a traditional pay-TV subscription.
A concern is that the proposals would allow third parties, including technology companies like Apple and Google, to repackage these services, without negotiating directly for programming rights.
Given the powerful lobby interests involved, it seems that any regulatory proposal to unlock the set-top box will be strongly contested.