There is no arguing with the fact that the number of choices consumers have in how and what they purchase for entertainment has spiked exponentially in the last few decades as the tech industry has innovated and changed the way we live. We have a choice in where to buy our phones, our data plans, our televisions, our laptops, and our tablets. It's a far cry from the days when one company or even all the companies on a single platform could limit consumer choice and restrict competition.
In the "old days," which really weren't that long ago, if you wanted a phone, it was "Ma Bell" or nothing. PC's came with Microsoft Windows and there were no other choices. Music, news and other radio content came chock full of static and the risk that you could drive out of radio station range in the middle of your favorite song.
Technological innovation has changed almost all of that in just a few decades - explosively. We can get phones from a multitude of providers. PCs are still available, but we can do our work just as ubiquitously on web based apps, iPads and even our phones, which today have more computing power than ever. And we get music with flawless quality no matter where we travel via satellite radio, MP3 players, streaming Internet music services - and when we want, good old AM/FM, which is still thriving.
But there's one cornerstone of tech and entertainment today that has remained remarkably stagnant--and will remain so, if the industry gets its way--even as the marketplace as a whole strives towards greater choice for consumers: cable television.
Currently, cable subscribers in America pay on average $231 a year to rent "set-top boxes" from cable providers, amounting to a remarkable $20 billion in annual revenue for cable, satellite, and telephone companies like Comcast and DirecTV. These boxes are, largely by design, incompatible with much of today's technology, such as online, streaming content. The result is, even as we move into the twenty-first century with smart TVs and more "connected" homes, consumers are burdened with clunky twentieth century problems: multiple remote controls for multiple devices, high costs driven by a lack of competition, and a lack of programming choices.
This can all change though: On February 18 the Federal Communications Commission votes on a recent proposal from Chairman Tom Wheeler on whether to "unlock" the cable set-top box and allow innovators both big and small into the marketplace. Instead of having that box provided by your cable company, you could choose between options from Amazon, Apple, Samsung, NVIDIA, Tivo and even smaller companies like Hauppage. In many cases, you wouldn't even need a box at all as Smart TV's could provide even more functionality than your current cable box. Together, the cable and tech companies could work to jointly devise open technical standards that could allow cable subscribers to watch cable on any device.
While the FCC is leaving the exact technical solution to the private sector, the thrust of its proposal is that competition and innovation will, by their very nature, create a system that is best for viewers. A rise in competition in this space would mean a rise in consumer choice and likely lead to user-friendly interfaces, lower costs, and maybe even eliminate the need for multiple remotes. Imagine: one remote, one searchable system through which to view all video content to which a user is subscribed, and an open architecture that will enable interoperability between products created by different providers.
Cable companies are, understandably, resistant. This isn't their first time at the rodeo, either. In 1998, Congress tried to diminish some of the stranglehold cable had on choices available to consumers, when it mandated that cable operators make available "cable cards" that subscribers could install into third-party boxes they bought from vendors such as TiVo. Cable companies responded by charging monthly rental fees for the cable cards and making the process of trying to exercise choice outside of the cable company's system so cumbersome that today only about 1% of customers buy their own boxes. The cable stranglehold remains.
As Chairman Wheeler wrote in an op-ed on ReCode, "the [FCC] proposal is about one thing: Consumer choice. You should have options that competition provides. It's time to unlock the set-top market--let's let innovators create, and then let consumers choose."
Just as it was right in 1968 to break the AT&T telephone monopoly (which required customers to use only AT&T devices and telephone lines), which then spurred innovation in the telephone industry, the FCC is right to bring the cable companies kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century where free market competition will lead to greater innovation and greater consumer choice.