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Big cable has a plan to help you dump the cable box you’re renting

Rob Pegoraro

You may finally be able to dump your cable box and its $10-to-$20 monthly fee.

But will you believe that promise when it comes from the companies that have foisted that box on you for years? You may have to decide sooner than you thought.

A group of cable operators last week announced a new proposal called “Ditch the Box,” pledging to ship apps for smart TVs that could do pretty much everything cable boxes could do (except pause or record shows).

The group pushing “Ditch the Box”— called the Future of Television Coalition — said it’s aiming to provide an alternative to the Federal Communication Commission’s “flawed” proposal to “Unlock the Box.” The “Unlock the Box” deal pushed by FCC Chair Tom Wheeler would not only free you to use the hardware of your choice but would let you watch in an app of your liking.

Cable’s new deal

The “Ditch the Box” plan is something of a compromise between the status quo and the FCC’s “Unlock the Box” plan, and it’s backed by the Motion Picture Association in addition to the Future of Television Coalition members including Comcast (CMCSA) and other major cable operators as well as AT&T (T) and Dish Network (DISH).

Comcast is part of the group backing Ditch the Box.

Here’s how “Ditch the Box” would work (as an outline, a FAQ and a presentation to the FCC explain): Your cable or satellite service would provide apps built on the HTM5 standard that you would install and run on “smart TVs, tablets, streaming players, and other connected devices” at no extra charge. If you watch cable TV, the video would come on a walled-off part of your cable internet bandwidth, and you would be free to return every one of your cable boxes — and their button-encrusted remotes — to your cable operator.

(This use of a “managed” connection would exempt your viewing from any data caps set by your cable company; other video services would not be so fortunate.)

if you use satellite, however, your programming would continue to be beamed down from orbit to your home’s dish, and you’d still need one gateway device to share that video over your home network to your screens.

You’d be able to look for programming in your smart device’s built-in search instead of having to open the subscription-TV app. But you would have to launch that app to browse for shows. It would be somewhat like how you can search for a movie from a smart TV’s home screen to see if it’s on Netflix — but if you don’t know what you want to watch, you have to launch the Netflix app to see what’s on.

Future of TV members pledge to ship these apps in two years, with the FCC empowered to enforce deadlines.

What’s not bundled

This concept adds up to a major advance over Big Cable’s current crop of apps, many of which disable iOS and Android features to prevent you from watching the TV content you pay for on an actual TV. But it does not cover digital-video-recorder capabilities — easily added with cloud-based DVR systems like the one in Comcast’s upcoming HTML5 and Roku apps. It doesn’t exclude them, either; that’s something the FCC would have to negotiate.

These apps are supposed to be free. But one current software alternative to a box, DirecTV’s “RVU” system, comes with a fee. AT&T, that satellite service’s owner, wouldn’t clarify if a future DirecTV app would cost extra.

The “Ditch the Box” plan also requires you to accept your cable or satellite service’s interface. If somebody else can come up with a better front-end for your subscription TV — which, having seen too many of them, would not be hard — they couldn’t put it into the market.

That shortfall led the user-rights group Public Knowledge to respond with a critical post that said "Ditch the Box" “does not allow for true user interface competition.” That is one thing that Wheeler’s "Unlock the Box" would have enabled, since it called for allowing third-party developers to write their own apps as long as they complied with a standard — including measures to stop copyright infringement — defined by the cable operator.

The FCC may be falling apart on this

Ditch the Box does seem good enough to fracture the FCC — even after President Barack Obama endorsed ending the cable box’s reign in an interview with Yahoo Finance.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, nominated to the FCC by Obama in 2012, told Broadcasting & Cable that “it has become clear the original proposal has real flaws” and that “We need to find another way forward."

(Rosenworcel’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Yahoo Finance.)

Without Rosenworcel’s vote, Wheeler’s proposal can’t advance past the five-member commission. Republican appointees Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly can’t stand the idea. Summed up O’Rielly in an onstage appearance at the cable industry’s INTX show in Boston last month: “Put it in the trash where it belongs."

Obama may not like that, but he is a little busy at the moment.

A counterproductive cable strategy?

Before you hang your head at yet another victory for cable orthodoxy — coming after decades of failed attempts to open the market for pay-TV hardware — remember we’re only at this point because of cable’s own attempts to escape an earlier regulatory regime: CableCards.

Back in 2004, the FCC began requiring cable companies to provide consumers with CableCards — credit card-size modules you can plug into a TiVo to watch cable. But cable companies weren’t required to use the cards in their own boxes and consequently provided lousy support for them. That changed in 2007, when the FCC established a rule that effectively forced cable operators to use the cards in their own boxes.

Starting in 2013, the cable industry lobbied Congress to repeal that rule, saying it was obsolete and raised the cost of cable. The cable industry’s campaign to work the refs paid off in late 2014 when Congress approved a measure to get rid of the mandate that cable operators use the CableCard. But Congress also signed off on an amendment calling on the FCC to research a CableCard replacement.

That set up a working group called the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee, “DSTAC” for short, that last summer endorsed an app-based approach as one way to resolve this issue — at about the same time that Comcast began work on its HTML5 app. One year and an ambitious Wheeler proposal later, having apps replace all of a cable box’s viewing function has become the middle ground of the debate.

But if the subscription-TV industry had let CableCard lie three years ago, we might not even be having this discussion. Thanks, cable lobbyists?

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.