It’s probably just a PR move right now, but Comcast has announced that it will offer its full programming lineup to customers with Samsung smart TVs and select streaming devices. This would completely eliminate the need for a cable box. A detailed article in The Wall Street Journal lays out Comcast’s plans, which include the idea that Comcast programming won’t count against data caps. While the article doesn’t use the term “zero rating,” it’s clear that Comcast’s using the theory, which says that net neutrality doesn’t apply to streaming services that come from within your network. This is the hottest buzzword in television today thanks to FCC rules which would otherwise stop cable and wireless providers from promoting free data.
This move comes amid pressure from the FCC and the Executive Branch in general to deregulate the cable box industry. While we have yet to see any formal rules, it’s believed that the FCC will require all pay-TV companies (including satellite) to open up their proprietary systems so other manufacturers can sell hardware. This would potentially end the practice of “rental fees” or “lease fees” that is common to all pay-TV providers and in some cases costs users up to $75 a month for a three-room system.
Conventional wisdom says that putting programming on smart TVs or streaming devices would help pay-TV companies get out of the hardware business entirely, and that would mean they didn’t have to share their encryption schemes with anyone. DIRECTV, for example, has been vigilant about their chip-based VideoGuard system which has not seen a significant hack in over a decade since the company brought all manufacturing contracts in house.
The real question here for Comcast is how they will actually make all of this happen. There are two big failure points here. They first need to get all the programming to the home in a way that a streaming device can understand it. They could put a server appliance in the home that converts video to a more streaming-friendly format, or build a truly robust app that is able to decode cable company encryption.
The second challenge, however, could be more daunting. Many users aren’t able to stream full-quality HD over their wireless networks in real time. This is the reason DIRECTV requires a wired connection for its smart TV client, for example. Cable companies would need to include low-bandwidth streams at different levels like Netflix does, which would create stress on their networks, or they could use a device in the home to adaptively downsample programming. It’s not clear if customers would accept low-bandwidth streams or a 5-10 second buffer with each channel change. Comcast could start by requiring a wired connection to its streaming devices and smart TVs but that would keep many users from the first round of access.
For now, Comcast gets a great headline and to be honest I think they’re moving in the right direction. It’s no secret that DIRECTV is also investing heavily in putting its content on streaming devices and portable devices, and I completely expect a DIRECTV app for most streaming devices to be available by the end of the year. It just remains to be seen how many channels will be available.
If the FCC continues on the path of opening up cable boxes, I expect DIRECTV’s next-generation device to be completely “headless” meaning no TV output at all. That would mean that there would be no cable box to open up, and every TV would need nothing but a client app or simple adapter to use the service. I for one can’t wait.