Comcast: FCC’s Set-Top Box Proposal’s Impossible. FCC: Nuh-Uh. Who’s Right?

Image courtesy of Consumerist

The FCC’s got a proposal in the works right now that Comcast doesn’t like. This is not a shock; Comcast has generally not liked any headlining proposals from the FCC in recent years. Some of the cable giant’s complaints are undoubtedly just sound and noise, signifying nothing other than “we like profit, don’t screw with our thing.” But maybe some of its technological complaints have merit.

First, a recap of where we stand right now:

Cable companies currently make a lot of money from mandatory equipment rental fees imposed on consumers. The FCC has a proposal in the works to make the cable set-top box market at least halfway competitive. That plan has support from the White House as well as from technology and consumer advocates. That proposal, of course, also has detractors. And among those detractors, Comcast has consistently been the most vocal.

That’s the background. These many months in, Comcast has made its opinion known in filings and meetings with the FCC many times. So Ars Technica, as it does, took a look at the technological complaints that Comcast is making, and the rebuttals from the FCC.

The sum of Comcast’s arguments, says Ars, is that it accuses the FCC of not actually knowing how TV works in 2016. The FCC’s proposal would require providers to make “information flows” available to third-party providers, the same way that they are available on a company’s own hardware. Three flows would be transmitted: one would be for content itself (“content delivery”), all the programming you tune to and watch. Another would be for “service discovery,” meaning all that handy data about channel listings and programming guides. And the third would be about “entitlements” — that’s whether or not you can record or fast-forward given programming.

Sounds good, right? Except Comcast claims that there’s no such thing: rather than information flowing out to cable boxes, it is stored on a server and customers basically reach in and grab it on-demand. Comcast’s X1 cable platform is an internet-based system, not a broadcast one (which is why it’s technologically possible, for example, to run Netflix on a modern Comcast box).

These on-demand requests, Comcast adds, are too individualized to be transmitted elsewhere. In other words, they’re too tied to an individual account, and over a hundred little subsystems would get completely screwed up if Comcast tried to mess with them.

The FCC, however, does not think these arguments have much weight. An unnamed senior Commission official told Ars that the FCC is perfectly aware of how on-demand, IP-based systems work and that Comcast’s pile of excuses is, well, no excuse.

The FCC official said that Comcast and others could comply by creating an API that would let third parties use their data for their own software uses. The API wouldn’t need to know every single feature internal to Comcast; it would only need to be able to access the customer’s permissions to access content. (Much the same way as third-party apps on your phone can access some of your Facebook content without knowing everything Facebook does or being Facebook.)

The FCC official also pointed out that the API was a suggestion — the rule proposed doesn’t mandate any specific solution, but instead requires everyone to develop and pick some kind of open standard that works and then stick with it.

Comcast claims the API is a no-go… even though of course there’s the fact that to some degree, making cloud-based cable into an app you can run anywhere already works: Comcast has itself proven this with its X1 app for Samsung and Roku devices, in addition to having a fairly robust TV-everywhere login-based viewing option for cable customers to use on their computers and tablets.

So who’s more right? Ars consulted an expert who works for neither Comcast nor the FCC. That expert says that his own company ran a successful proof-of-concept demonstration showing that “off-the-shelf equipment and open standards” work right now to let third-party hardware access Comcast’s (and Google Fiber’s) video stream. The catch: that demo used a CableCard, which kinda sorta failed miserably to launch and is being phased out as a product and standard.

So where do we go from here? That’s a big old giant open question. We’ll find out if the proposal goes through or not sometime in the coming months.

Set-top saga: Comcast says it’s “not feasible” to comply with FCC cable box rules
[Ars Technica]