We may have dodged the Comcast/Time Warner bullet but we’re still far from getting rid of the antiquated set-top boxes and cable modems that only exist to protect juicy old business models.
As the strong reactions to even the slightest Apple TV rumor demonstrate, there’s a vigorous appetite for a simple, modern Internet TV experience. The technology is ready but carriers aren’t.
Last week started with Big Apple TV News in an authoritative-sounding Wall Street Journal article:
“Apple Inc. is in talks with Comcast Corp. about teaming up for a streaming-television service that would use an Apple set-top box and get special treatment on Comcast’s cables to ensure it bypasses congestion on the Web, people familiar with the matter say.”
Search for “Comcast” in a news aggregator such as Feedly (there are many other good choices), and you’ll see a wide range of reactions to the Apple-Comcast rumor. Given the heat the article generated, it’s odd that there has been zero follow-up from the main players — nothing from Apple and Comcast, no additional information in the WSJ or any other journal. When a deal of such importance is in the works, “people familiar with the matter” have a strong incentive to keep talking, to add color, to spin their side of the story. Of course, no one expects Apple to do much leaking, but the radio silence from Comcast spinmeisters is another matter entirely.
Philip Elmer-DeWitt offers the most likely explanation: The Wall Street Journal got played by someone intent on throwing a wrench into Comcast’s plan to acquireTime Warner’s cable operations. (This wouldn’t be the first time: Cellphone carriers have repeatedly used the WSJ to air their perennial Poor Me complaints about excessive smartphone subsidies.)
Echoes of the WSJ non-story ricocheted around the blogosphere. Some, such as this BBC article, make painful points about the abuse that US consumers undergo at the hands of broadband carriers:
As a sharp-witted Be engineer liked to remark: “It costs more… But it does less.”
Carriers take too much money for a user-hostile experience simply because they can. In most locations, cable companies have little or no competition, so there’s no reason for them to do anything more than milk the most profit from a cheap infrastructure. As Apple Insider’s Neil Hughes reminds us, the user experience isn’t a priority for cable providers. Indeed, as I write this from Paris, I have to juggle set-top box restarts and malfunctioning secondary content subscriptions only reluctantly allowed by the main provider.
It doesn’t have to be that way. No miracle is required to make our Cable TV experience easy and gratifying.
Consider today’s cable arrangement, simplified for our discussion. A coax cable is strung from the street into your basement or crawl space. You plug the coax into a signal splitter, connect one output to your cable modem for Internet access, while the others feed the TVs in your household.
Next, you run an Ethernet cable from your modem to your WiFi access point and maybe you also run a wire from the access point to your “most trusted” computer. Upstairs, we see a set-top box, an Internet TV streaming device (Roku, Apple TV, Boxee, or other), and, if your TV is of a certain age, a digital adaptor.
That’s four or five devices that you have to connect and, when things go wrong, disconnect, power down, and restart in the “proper” order.
It’s only too easy to imagine how a next-generation Apple TV could collapse this maze of impenetrable interfaces into one box: Coax in, Wifi and HDMI out and, miracle, one and only one remote! This is something that Apple seems to have the taste and resources to do well.
There are no technical obstacles, no new technology is required, no new software platform, just a careful integration job. I realize I’m veering dangerously close to the “mere matter of implementation” deception, but regardless of the amount of work it would take to integrate the various technologies, the benefit to the user would make the engineering effort worth it.
And there are many benefits: We can throw away our DVRs as content becomes an app that we can stream whenever we want — the 60 Minutes iPad app is an elegant, flexible exemplar of the type. Rather than paying for a “package” of channels that are selected by the cable provider, we’ll be able to buy a la carte shows, series, and channels through iTunes or similar content vendor. We’ll be able to watch the free-with-ads version of a show, or we can pay for the ad-free edition.
Some day, the status quo will break, perhaps as the result of a patient encirclement and infrastructure buildup — a better, vertically integrated Content Delivery Network, both very much compatible with Apple’s playbook. As the reactions to the (possibly planted) Apple-Comcast rumor amply demonstrate, users are becoming increasingly aware of the disconnect between the experience that the cable companies offer and TV Done Right.
Comcast tells us how much better our lives will be after they acquire Time Warner. Great, thanks! Perhaps this is an opportunity to look at other ways that we can “acquire” Cable TV and Internet access.
“Transaction Creates Multiple Pro-Consumer and Pro-Competitive Benefits…”
Don’t read the full legal verbiage that purports to explain the maneuver. A more productive use of your time will be had by reading Counternotion’s pointed summary in Obfuscation by disclosure: a lawyerly design pattern:
(tl;dr: According to Comcast, the merger is “pro-sumer” if you “get past some of the hysteria,” it’s “approvable” by the regulators and won’t “reduce consumer choice at all”. Will it raise prices? “not promising that they will go down or even that they will increase less rapidly.” Given the historical record of the industry, it’s Comedy Central material.)
Let’s not loiter around Comcast’s lobbying operations, either — the $18.8M spent in 2013, the pictures of Mr. Roberts golfing with our President, the well-oiled revolving door between the FCC and the businesses they regulate. Feelings of powerlessness and anger may ensue, as trenchantly expressed in this lament from a former FCC Commissioner.
Instead, let’s use our agitation as an opportunity to rethink what we really want from Cable carriers. The wish list is long: TV à la carte instead of today’s stupid bundles, real cable competition vs. de facto local monopolies, metered Internet access in exchange for neutrality and lower prices for lighter usage, decent set-top boxes, 21st century cable modems, and, of course, lower prices.
These are all valid desires, but if there were just one thing that we could change about the carrier business, what would it be? What would really make a big, meaningful difference to our daily use of TV and the Internet?
Do you remember the Carterfone Decision? For a century (telephone service started in the US in 1877), AT&T reigned supreme in telecommunications networking. (I should say the former AT&T, not today’s company rebuilt from old body parts.) The company owned everything along its path, all the way down to your telephone handset — only MaBell’s could be used.
Then, in the late fifties, a company called Carterfone began to sell two-way radios that could be hooked up to a telephone. The device was invented by a Texan named Thomas Carter as a clumsy but clever way to allow oil field owners and managers sitting in their offices in Dallas to reach their workers out at the pumps.
AT&T was not amused.
“[AT&T] advised their subscribers that the Carterfone, when used in conjunction with the subscriber’s telephone, is a prohibited interconnecting device, the use of which would subject the user to the penalties provided in the tariff…”
Carterfone brought an antitrust suit against AT&T… and won. With its decision in favor of Thomas Carter’s company, the Federal Communications Commission got us to a new era where any device meeting the appropriate technical standards could connect to the phone network.
“…we hold, as did the examiner, that application of the tariff to bar the Carterfone in the future would be unreasonable and unduly discriminatory.”
The regulator — an impartial representative, in an ideal world — decides what can connect to the network. It’s not a decision that’s left to the phone company.
Back in the 21st century, we need a Carterfone Decision for cable boxes and modems. We need a set of rules that would allow Microsoft, Google, Roku, Samsung, Amazon, Apple — and companies that are yet to be founded — to provide true alternatives to Comcast’s set-top boxes.
Today, you have a cable modem that’s so dumb it forces you to restart everything in a particular sequence after a power outage. You have a WiFi base station stashed in among the wires. Your set-top box looks like it was made in the former Soviet Union (a fortuitous product introduction days before the merger announcement doesn’t improve things, much). You have to find your TV’s remote in order to switch between broadcast TV, your game console, and your Roku/AppleTV/Chromecast…and you have to reach into your basket of remotes just to change channels.
Imagine what would happen if a real tech company were allowed to compete on equal terms with the cable providers.
Microsoft, for example, could offer an integrated Xbox that would provide Internet access, TV channels with a guide designed by Microsoft, WiFi, an optional telephone, games of course, and other apps as desired. One box, three connectors: power, coax from the street, and HDMI to the TV set. There would be dancing in the streets.
But, you’ll object, what about the technical challenges? Cable systems are antiquated and poorly standardized. The cables themselves carry all sorts of noisy signals. What tech giant would want to deal with this mess?
To which one can reply: Look at the smartphone. It’s the most complicated consumer device we’ve ever known. It contains radios (Wifi, Bluetooth, multi-band cellular), accelerometers/gyroscopes, displays, loudspeakers, cameras, batteries… And yet, smartphones are made in huge quantities and function across a wide range of network standards. There’s no dearth of engineering talent (and money) to overcome the challenges, especially when they’re tackled outside of the cable companies and their cost-before-everything cultures.
Skeptics are more likely to be correct about the regulatory environment or, to be more precise, regulatory capture, a phrase that…captures the way regulators now work for the industries they were supposed to control. Can we imagine the FCC telling Comcast: “Go ahead and buy Time Warner…just one little condition, make sure any and all of your connection protocols and services APIs are open to any and all that pass the technical tests listed in Appendix FU at the end of this ruling.”
That’s not going to happen. We must prepare ourselves for a sorry display of bad faith and financial muscle. Who knows, in the end, Comcast might give up, as AT&T did after telling us how pro-consumer the merger with T-Mobile would be.