That cable box is probably sticking around a little longer

The FCC had started last year on a plan to require all cable (and presumably satellite) providers to open up cable box manufacturing so that consumers could buy their own boxes rather than rent them from the cable company. This sounded like a good deal especially when you realize that some people were paying $30 per month per receiver. However, the plan is probably dead; the new FCC chair will probably kill it.

Ars Technica reports that GOP lawmakers have asked new FCC chair Ajit Pai to close the book on this cable box plan, and there’s every reason to think Mr. Pai will do just that. There won’t be any more discussion on the topic, and things will continue on just the way they are.

You might be surprised when you hear, I think that’s a good thing. While it’s obviously not good for companies like TiVo who have tried for over a decade to replace the cable box in your home, it’s good news for pretty much everyone else. There are two reasons.

First of all things aren’t that bad.
There are some outliers but there’s a lot of competition in pay-TV and anyone who’s really overcharging for cable box rentals isn’t going to last very long. If your cable company is charging you $30 a month for a box the size of a large pizza, you can get satellite, fiber, or cut the cord completely. Pay-TV revenues, especially among cable companies, are dropping and if these providers want to stop the bloodshed they’re going to innovate anyway, the FCC doesn’t need to push them.

And that’s the thing, cable boxes are going away anyway.
Cable companies know that box rentals are making them money, but they also know that it’s not going to last forever. They’ll shift the fees around so they’re charging you just as much, it just won’t be in the form of box rentals. Most cable companies don’t want to be in the box rental business anyway, honestly. They’d just as soon develop an app for your TV or streaming box that does the same thing. You can see this already — Comcast, DIRECTV, and DISH all have full-featured apps that let you watch live TV on your mobile device and it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to making that work with your streaming box or TV. As on-demand eclipses DVR usage in the coming years, you’ll need nothing but a streaming box to watch everything you want. That’s just how they like it.

When you’re talking about a company that provides internet and TV (like Comcast) they genuinely don’t care if you stream or watch over a cable. It’s all bits and bytes to them anyway. When you’re talking about DIRECTV or DISH it gets a little more complex but I imagine a small device that sits on your home network, receives the satellite signal, and sends it to every TV and streaming device in your home through Wi-Fi or wired internet. It’s not that hard to get there, and I’m sure that everyone is working on doing it.

The simple fact is..
Previous attempts by the FCC to legislate cable boxes have been a complete failure. They’ve only resulted in obsolete hardware that’s hard to get and practically impossible to install. The market is moving in the right direction and it’s moving there more quickly than the FCC can get a handle on. So I think it’s best that the commissioners spend their time on something more worthwhile and let this sort itself out. I’m confident it will.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.