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Comcast Tries to Do an End Run Around the FCC on Set-Top Box Changes

April 21, 2016, 4:11 PM UTC

It didn’t seem like much as far as news about the TV business goes. On Wednesday, Comcast said that it is launching a new feature for its Xfinity service that will allow users to watch their cable through Roku streaming boxes and Samsung Smart TVs.

Behind that small announcement, however, lies a world of tension between the cable giant and the Federal Communications Commission over the future of the connected TV.

To understand why, you have to go back to an announcement the FCC made in February about a campaign it calls “Unlock the Box.” In a nutshell, the campaign is designed to free consumers from the need to pay huge sums to rent a set-top box in order to get cable. President Obama even signed an executive order agreeing with the FCC’s proposal.

In announcing the move, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler talked about how users have been locked into buying or renting cable boxes, and that the time had come to change this unfair situation. So the FCC’s proposal is aimed at forcing cable operators to open up the set-top box market and allow others like Google or Apple to provide devices that do the same thing.

As Wheeler described it in a post on tech news site Re/Code:

Altogether, U.S. consumers spend a whopping $20 billion a year to lease these devices. In fact, according to a recent analysis, over the past 20 years the cost of cable set-top boxes has risen 185% while the cost of computers, televisions and mobile phones has dropped by 90%.

In its response to this announcement, Comcast said that it has been trying to do exactly that, but in a different way. The company talked about all the new developments and features for its Xfinity service, and how it was being made available through smart TVs and other streaming devices. In effect, it accused the FCC of fighting the last war.

Comcast just struck a huge deal with Amazon. Watch:

The latest announcements about its Xfinity service are another step in a campaign by Comcast to convince the FCC that its proposals to break open the set-top box are not required. In other words, the cable provider is saying to the regulator, “See? We are giving consumers access to their cable without those expensive set-top boxes. You can stand down.”

As Comcast senior vice president Mark Hess put it in a blog post:

In light of the success of the apps-based model in the marketplace, the far-reaching government technical mandate being currently proposed by the FCC is unnecessary. The FCC’s proposed set-top box mandate threatens to undermine this highly-dynamic marketplace, create substantial costs and consumer harms… all in an effort to achieve what apps are already delivering for consumers.

The so-called “Future of TV Coalition,” which is made up of cable providers and TV networks, unsurprisingly jumped in to agree with Comcast. If the FCC’s set-top box proposals are just about freeing consumers from monthly charges for their cable boxes, the group said, then Comcast’s announcement “underscores how absurd the arguments for government intervention are. Apps, not federal box mandates, are the fastest and most effective way to expand consumers’ options.”

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So is the FCC prepared to admit that Comcast is moving forward on opening up all by itself and doesn’t need the regulator’s help? Not even close. In a statement, the commission said that the Comcast plan “appears to offer only a proprietary, Comcast-controlled user interface and seems to allow only Comcast content on different devices, rather than allowing those devices to integrate or search across Comcast content as well as other content consumers subscribe to.”

In other words, Comcast’s version of opening up isn’t the same as that of the FCC. What the regulator seems to have in mind is a future in which a box made by almost anyone—whether it’s Roku or Google or Apple or Amazon—can access all of the cable content from multiple providers, and allow consumers to pick and choose between them.

Comcast, not surprisingly, is more interested in a future where it continues to control the interface, whether it’s through a set-top box that it rents or a box that consumers buy. So the back-and-forth between the cable company and the FCC over whose vision of an open TV industry will likely continue for some time to come.