Still, it won’t be surprising if cable companies start charging more for the privilege of using CableCARD or making them harder to get for new subscribers. We’ll also likely see fewer CableCARD products on the market going forward. TiVo already seems mentally checked out of the consumer DVR business, and Nick Kelsey, the CTO of SiliconDust, told me via email that while the company will still support CableCARD customers, it’s now investing heavily in ATSC 3.0 hardware, both for cable and over-the-air TV. (Pressed about whether the company will keep making CableCARD products, Kelsey said it’s “still being discussed internally.”)
Four years ago, the FCC seemed to realize that CableCARD was an insufficient alternative to cable boxes.
Under the FCC’s previous chairman, Tom Wheeler, the agency proposed a new system in which cable companies would have to supply their programming on third-party hardware through internet protocols. The idea was that companies like Apple, Google, or Amazon could integrate cable programming with their existing streaming players, providing freedom from rental fees along with innovative features like voice control.
Naturally, the TV industry hated this idea, and so it came up with a counter-proposal: Instead of letting device makers integrate cable content however they wanted, the industry offered to provide its own apps on practically any streaming device. That way, customers would get to choose their own hardware, but the TV industry would still retain some control.
In the end, neither proposal happened. When Ajit Pai took over the FCC in 2017, sidelining Wheeler’s cable box rules was among his first orders of business. And without the threat of regulation, the industry quietly abandoned its alternative app-based scheme.
In explaining why it killed off Wheeler’s plan for good last week, the FCC largely regurgitated cable industry talking points. The agency said it had “serious and unresolved concerns” about security and copyright protection (concerns that consumer advocacy groups have disputed), and reiterated the same argument it used against CableCARD: Customers already have the ability to watch cable programming on their streaming devices, so there’s no need for more regulatory intervention.
There’s just one problem with that argument: Streaming apps aren’t nearly as prevalent as the FCC claims.
Sure, if you’re a Comcast subscriber, you can use the Xfinity Stream app in place of a cable box on Roku devices, Samsung TVs, and LG TVs. But that same app isn’t available on other streaming platforms such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or Android TV. A report last year by BestAppleTV claimed that Comcast is more interested in building up its own X1 platform than supporting more third-party alternatives such as Apple TV, and while Comcast disputed the story, it hasn’t launched any new streaming TV apps in more than a year.
Likewise, if you’re getting TV service through Spectrum, you can use the Spectrum app on Roku, Apple TV, Samsung TVs, and Xbox One consoles, but not on Fire TV, Android TV, or Chromecast. Meanwhile, Dish Network only offers live TV and DVR on Amazon Fire TV devices.
And if you’re a customer of Verizon Fios, DirecTV, or Cox, you’re simply out of luck for replacing your cable boxes with streaming players. None of those providers offer their own apps for streaming on TVs. You’re instead limited to streaming on phones, tablets, and computers, or using a patchwork of individual TV network apps to access programming.