New Technology For Old Cable Television: The FCC Got it Right

If you have cable television, then you likely rent one or more set-top cable boxes from your cable company. These devices descramble cable television signals—you couldn’t receive most premium channels, such as HBO or Showtime, without them.

But the basic functionality of these devices hasn’t changed much in the past fifteen years—mostly because the cable companies maintain tight (and highly confidential) control over the algorithms that their devices use to descramble their cable signals.  This has prevented tech companies, like Apple or Google, from building a better mousetrap, i.e., a cable box that can do more than just descramble HBO.  To add insult to injury, for the privilege of using those plain ol’ cable boxes, you probably pay your cable company anywhere from $5 to $16 per device, per month.

But yesterday the FCC issued a “Notice of Rulemaking” that is going to change everything.

For the technical folks out there (don’t worry, plain English follows below), the Notice concluded that the FCC should adopt a rule requiring cable companies to “offer three flows of information using any published, transparent format that conforms to specifications set by open standards bodies.”  It also proposed that, in the future, cable companies should “support at least one content protection system to protect its multichannel video programming that is licensable on reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms by an organization that is not affiliated” with the cable companies.

Wow.  Seriously, wow.  That’s good stuff.  

For those of you who have no idea what that means, here’s the English translation:  In exchange for a reasonable licensing fee, cable companies will have to use standard methods to transmit their cable signals, which will allow third parties, such as Apple and Google, to understand and interpret those signals.  That will allow those third parties to develop set-top cable boxes that are far better than what you have now.  

How much better?  Well, maybe the new devices will merge cable and streaming services (like Roku or Chromecast), or allow game consoles (such as Xbox or PlayStation) to offer premium cable channels and video recording features. Maybe the new cable boxes will be compatible with home theater systems, or offer compatibility with other Internet-linked devices in your home. 

In fact, Google supposedly has something in the works already.  I’m sure other will be jumping on that bandwagon as well.  Potential advancements will be limited only by the imagination of the engineers at companies like Google, Apple, Sony and Samsung—so hang on to your hats, ‘cause this could be a really fun and exciting ride. 

If you want to read the FCC’s Notice, you can find it here:

Quick aside: If you download the Notice of Proposed Rule Making, I recommend skipping to page 8, and start reading under the “Need for Rules” section. You’ll quickly find yourself saying, “The FCC got it right!”—and how often do you find yourself saying that about the government?