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FCC pushes #unlockthebox campaign to fix cable TV

The FCC is trying to fix cable boxes while showing what it learned from the net neutrality battle.

Richard Lawler , @Rjcc
01.27.16 in AV
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Cable TV has many issues that frustrate its customers -- channel bundles, poor customer service, high prices and more -- but so many of them track back directly to its antiquated and troublesome set-top boxes. As it has for many years, the FCC is again pushing for changes to the traditional model, and Chairman Tom Wheeler laid out the points for his plan (PDF) as well as authored an op-ed on Re/code earlier today. We detailed the issues and what the FCC is trying to do earlier, but what's clear now is that after years of pushing AllVid with little to show for it, the agency is trying a new tack.

It's using the hashtag "#unlockthebox" and is focusing on the $20 billion per year consumers spend to lease cable boxes that no one really likes. In short, it's obviously learned from the John Oliver effect on net neutrality and is trying to recreate that when it comes to cable TV. As strategies, it's one I can get behind, and the movement could actually benefit everyone.

The only real alternative to a cable DVR (while maintaining cable) is a TiVo, and I don't think anyone believes that product has developed as quickly as other set-top boxes (Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV) over the past few years. On the cable side I've tried Comcast's X1 platform: It has some nice elements but is still terribly slow, and it needs to reboot itself every single night. At this point, any competition would be welcome and might be enough to keep customers from ditching pay-TV altogether.

Time Warner Cable already dipped its toe in by offering a Roku box and service to subscribers, but that's just a start. Cable TV should be available as an app on the Xbox One and PS4 right next to PlayStation Vue and Sling TV, but it isn't. That would be a great option as opposed to Comcast simply pushing simple games to already overburdened TV boxes, and if these changes are made, it could happen.

The pay-TV business is in a strange place right now as cord-cutters and cord-nevers grow in number. Wheeler noted that in 2007 the FCC opened up wireless networks to non-carrier-provided devices, and things exploded. Can the same happen for TV? We deserve to find out, and if the FCC can keep up the pressure on gatekeeper TV companies that have been slow to react over the past decade, maybe we'll actually find out. The commission will vote on this notice during its meeting on Jan. 28th at 1 PM ET. See you then.

[Image credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Comcast]

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