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Cable operators are trying to fix the single biggest problem with their apps

Rob Pegoraro
Consumers will probably still need their cable boxes for a while.

BOSTON — The cable industry is finally moving to give its viewers a way to watch the channels they want without also having to pay rent on a cable box they don’t want. At the same time, the industry is outraged by the government’s attempts to “unlock the box” and let viewers tune in with the hardware and apps of their choice.

In a speech that opened the industry’s INTX trade show, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president and CEO Michael Powell made both points with a fair amount of heat.

Powell — former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — praised recent moves by cable operators to provide box-free viewing options: "Consumers now see every screen as a television."

However, then Powell tore into the FCC’s recent attempts to require cable and satellite operators to provide a way for third-party devices and apps to tune into their content.

“We find ourselves the target of a relentless regulatory assault,” the former FCC chairman said. He denounced current FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s “unlock the box” initiative, the commission’s implementation of net-neutrality rules and other recent moves as “thundering tectonic shifts” that “crumbled” decades of settled policy.

A new area of app activity: TV

Major cable operators have spent the past few years shipping a variety of apps with one thing in common: They don’t actually let you watch TV on your TV, instead limiting you to phone or tablet viewing of shows streamed over the internet.

A few cable operators at INTX said they’re trying to find ways to let you use these apps on your actual TV, but for most of us it’s way too soon to stop renting a cable box.

Comcast’s (CMCSA) oversized exhibit had the most promising exhibition, where the nation’s largest TV service and internet provider showed an Android app running on a Nvidia Shield streaming-media player and an HTML5 app running on a Samsung smart TV.

Both bring your entire cable lineup, streamed over a private internet connection that’s free of stuttering or buffering video. Both provide a searchable, browsable program grid that looks and works like the one on Comcast’s X1 boxes (on the TV, you can also find Comcast programs using Samsung’s universal search) and include a cloud-based DVR.

Don’t get too excited, though: Comcast is only treating the Android app as a research project for now, and the HTML5 app on display couldn’t play live TV. And Comcast wasn’t ready to show off the Roku app it has said it will ship.

Comcast won’t commit to a ship date for these apps more specific than the end of this year. Still,  it would be a major advance if it could deliver an app that matches every basic function of the X1 box save the voice-controlled remote that it introduced at last year’s INTX show in Chicago.

For now, having this intention at least gives Comcast some standing to assert that, as CEO Brian Roberts said in a press conference, “We don't feel the government needs to get into the box business.”

Two other cable operators — soon to be merged into one — had smaller exhibits of box-free TV viewing that were less impressive on a closer inspection.

Time Warner Cable (TWC) demonstrated the Roku app it now offers to New York City viewers; below the Roku player, a placard noted the app doesn’t include a DVR and also leaves out pay-per-view and video-on-demand viewing “but we're working on those.” A nearby demo from TWC purchaser Charter (CHTR) of its Spectrum app for Roku players revealed similar limitations. And in most markets, the app won’t work unless you have one cable box.

Tune in later?

While the cable industry’s enthusiasm for app-based viewing is commendable, it could have come to this realization years earlier. Like, four years earlier, at the cable industry’s 2012 show, which is when I saw a demo in this same convention center of a Samsung smart TV receiving Cablevision’s full channel lineup over the internet.

Even now, the industry’s fondness for apps is nowhere near universal. If your TV provider is not Comcast, TWC or Charter, you may have to wait a while longer to be liberated from your cable box. Cox, which uses Comcast’s X1 software on its boxes, may follow sooner than most; spokesman Todd Smith told me in an email the company plans to follow Comcast’s product road map. However, Verizon (VZ) recently took a step back by axing Xbox and smart-TV apps that had allowed box-free viewing of some channels on its Fios TV service.

Meanwhile, the FCC’s unlock-the-box move itself shouldn’t be news. That was foreshadowed over 20 years ago by a section in the Telecom Act of 1996 in which Congress told the FCC to establish a retail market for pay-TV hardware, and it follows an earlier FCC requirement that cable operators allow third-party boxes like TiVo DVRs to tune into digital cable with help from CableCards provided by them.

The only surprise here should be that it’s taken this long to have this argument break out in public.

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