Television on train tracks

Photo via Santinet/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Back in my day, we had to rent out a box to watch TV.

Last month the Daily Dot published an opinion piece by Thomas Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, criticizing the FCC's "Unlock the Box" plan for being wasteful and outdated. 

But this all presumes that there is even a problem that the FCC needs to solve. The industry is already developing apps that can be downloaded to SmartTVs, BlueRay players, tablets, computers, and even to smartphone devices. Once these apps are fully deployed, consumers will no longer need to rent a set-top box in order to watch the programming they want. 

Comcast just proved his point. 

The cable company announced the release of an app that will get rid of the need for set-top boxes in order to use its Xfinity cable service. The app will be made available later this year on Roku devices and Samsung's 2016 lineup of TVs. 

The Xfinity TV Partner Program will allow the company's partners, TV and streaming hardware manufacturers, to integrate the Xfinity TV Partner app. That app incorporates the Xfinity TV guide, cloud DVR recordings, as well as live and on-demand content. 

Roku

Watching live TV through an app instead of a cable box isn't exactly a new concept, but having all of your channels together with DVR and on-demand functionality might be the nail in the coffin for the controversial cable box. 

The aging hardware has been under the spotlight lately with the Federal Communications Commission pushing for third-party companies to create their own set-top boxes. The government agency believes it will help lower prices and loosen the grip cable companies have on their customers for requiring the rental of these mandatory devices. 

As it stands, customers must lease out a set-top box and pay a monthly fee to cable companies, those fees adding up to millions of dollars each year. Comcast's SVP Mark Hess voiced his disapproval with the FCC's plans 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marketplace, create substantial costs and consumer harms, and will take years to develop -- only to be likely outdated by the time it reaches the marketplace -- all in an effort to achieve what apps are already delivering for consumers.

The Comcast Xfinity TV Partner Program seems to be a direct response to the FCC's "Unlock the Box" legislation. And while a move away from set-top boxes sounds like a win-win for everyone, the FCC has already released a statement pointing out some limitations with Comcast's latest solution:

While we do not know all of the details of this announcement, it 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.

If cable apps gain traction, there may not be a box to unlock by the time all the logistics are taken care of. In either case, cable viewers should expect to soon be paying less, or not at all, for the plastic rectangles they've needed to rent out in order to watch TV. 

H/T Engadget

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FCC chairman wants to unlock your cable box
Since the dawn of pay TV, set-top boxes from cable and satellite companies have been ubiquitous, costing consumers hundreds of dollars per year to rent from from providers. On Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced an effort by the agency to give consumers more choices in how they watch TV.
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