Don't Cut The Cord. Cut The Inconvenience.

Boxee, makers of software powering digital media streaming boxes and computers, recently launched a campaign that seemingly encourages folks to “cut the cord” (and find fulfillment via their new Live TV USB dongle):

Yes, there are hundreds of cable channels, but make a list of the stuff you actually watch. You will probably find that most are on broadcast and the rest are available on Vudu/Netflix/Network sites. What is left on your list? Is it really worth $85 a month? We believe the combination of Netflix/Vudu/Vimeo/TED/etc. with over-the-air channels delivers a much better experience for less money.

Let’s skip for a moment the fact that most modern televisions tune over-the-air HD broadcasts and so Boxee’s cost “savings” pitch fails to incorporate their hardware fees. Instead, we’d rather focus on Boxee’s spat with the cable industry. And the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) takes issue with Boxee’s possible hypocrisy:

Instead of telling regulators that its service is a replacement for pay TV service, they now seem to be saying that their service is dependent on subscription TV and that regulators must… wait for it… dictate how cable service is delivered to its customers. Yes, that is correct. This cord-cutting, end-of-cable-as-we-know-it dynamo is demanding that the FCC not allow cable systems to scramble its basic service tier

Of course this is the sort of response we should expect from the cable lobbying organization… and it’s fairly common to see companies simultaneously marketing multiple demographics. Further, Boxee does make a point. Is there a reason basic cable needs to be encrypted – other than the cablecos’ desire to ineffectively protect content, prevent splitting cable, and sell pay per view? Look, I don’t want to cut the cord. I want to cut the inconvenience. And there are too many hoops. This may be The Golden Age of CableCARD but, man, can it be brutal. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could simply plug the coax directly into a television or third party retail set-top box without acquiring and hopefully pairing a CableCARD? Like we did in prior decades.

There’s a new generation coming up that believes content is freely acquired via the Internet. And I imagine it’s in the best interest of both the NCTA and consumer electronics companies, like Boxee or TiVo, to work together to advance their respective causes rather than carry on with this feigned outrage and misguided protectionism.

20 thoughts on “Don't Cut The Cord. Cut The Inconvenience.”

  1. “Wouldn’t it be grand if we could simply plug the coax directly into a television or third party retail set-top box without acquiring and hopefully pairing a CableCARD?”

    But CableCARD, properly regulated by the FCC, is the answer to the inconveniences.

    Just because the MSO’s are doing their damnedest to keep CableCARD from being easy for consumers doesn’t mean the basic concept isn’t the correct one.

    Someday we’ll perhaps have a better national IP infrastructure, and perhaps have new law or new court interpretation keeping the content companies and MSO’s from being vertically integrated the way they currently are, but in the meantime, the solution for today already exists…

    (And I do sympathize with Boxee here. Rhetorical hypocrisy is small potatoes compared to the very non-rhetorical hypocrisy of the cartels.)

  2. If it worked as advertised, possibly. Except we know the consumer experience is lacking and CableCARD is both a financial and technological burden on small companies like Boxee. Whereas clear QAM is currently available. Does Cox really need to lock down TBS? And provide me a set-top? In some PCMCIA-less future, we’ll end up with digital certificates of some sort and an AllVid-ish hub with DLNA or IP backchannel. Unfortunately, it may require all new gear on our part. Versus clear QAM. Which can be tuned, without a set-top, by every TV I currently own.

  3. PS. Apropos of nothing, while I find Jeremy Toeman’s RSS feed endlessly entertaining, with its vision of the coming OTT & ‘teh social’ nirvana dancing like gnomes and fairies the night before christmas, it’s worth noting that it’s all kinds of wrong, in this branch of the multiverse, at least.

    Just because you can find VC suckers doesn’t make it real.

  4. “If it worked as advertised, possibly. Except we know the consumer experience is lacking”

    Right. The only way it’ll ever work as advertised is if Julius makes it work as advertised.

    “Whereas clear QAM is currently available. Do they really need to lock down TBS?”

    No doubt. As stated, I sympathize with Boxee here. But even if they get what they want, I don’t see the potential market that I see with a seamless CableCARD experience for 3rd party devices.

    The safer the space that is created for CableCARD, the more market opportunity it would create. TiVo might actually get some competition if CableCARD were made to operate seamlessly for end-users.

  5. @Chucky – for the most part, I agree. there’s a lot more hype than substance, and unfortunately, there are very very few tech bloggers who actually understand the TV ecosystem… and, much like social media before it, the social TV “thing” is poorly understood, and therefore confusing to many, and therefore creating $ flow that doesn’t necessarily follow logic…

    And never forget: don’t blame the messenger!

  6. I had a lot of fun reading Twitter and interjecting my own comedic routine during the Super Bowl. (Twitter’s a bit like MST 3000 during big live events.) But that’s the extent of my “social TV” – I tried GetGlue but after “checking in” to a show (what?) I didn’t know what else to do there, didn’t find anything of value, and got back to what I really want to do in consuming that content without fiddling on my phone. I haven’t even been able to find the motivation to blog that I don’t care. Antisocial media for the win?

  7. “In some PCMCIA-less future, we’ll end up with digital certificates of some sort and an AllVid-ish hub with DLNA or IP backchannel.”

    Marx thought socialism was only a transitional condition, and once we passed through the transition, the state would wither away, and we could all live in some Rousseauian idyllic state of nature.

    Unfortunately, these transitional conditions tend to linger a bit longer than folks originally think. Bet you a buck we’re still waiting on AllVid in five years. Give me odds, and I’d bet we’re still waiting on AllVid in ten years. In the meantime, this CableCARD thing sorta works if you can keep the MSO’s from obstructing it, and 3rd parties would have incentive to build on it if you can keep the MSO’s from obstructing it.

    (I’ll start believing in AllVid the minute we get a court decision like the 1948 United States v. Paramount Pictures separating the movie producers from the movie exhibitors. If the content companies are forced to have no interest in the MSO’s, then a deal between the content companies and the CES companies like we saw in 1996 starts to seem plausible.)

  8. “And never forget: don’t blame the messenger!”

    I do enjoy your RSS feed. I’m glad you put it together.

  9. “If it worked as advertised, possibly. Except we know the consumer experience is lacking and CableCARD is both a financial and technological burden on small companies like Boxee.”

    Horse manure!!

    CableCards should work just like ordering a debit card. Seriously, you should be able to sign into an online account request one, and activate it their as well. There are several small banks and credit unions that could do all sorts of things, through their websites.

    If your paying for cable modem internet, and television through Comcast, for that money, they should get off their asses and do real work!!

    Don’t sit back and say that’s a burden, or too expensive, when people are paying more than $130.00 @ month…

  10. For some service providers ordering a CableCARD is just like ordering a debit card (e.g., FiOS). Its getting easier all the time as the number of retail CableCARD devices grows and contrary to what the NCTA reported in their last filing to the FCC on 97-80 TiVo and WMC CableCARD devices are being fielded in the tens of thousands. For example, TiVo reported gross additions of 30,000 TiVo Premiere boxes in its latest quarter ending 10/31/2011. Unfortunately for TiVo, those gross additions were offset by 60,000 TiVo Subscriber losses resulting in a net loss of 30,000 TiVo-Owned subscribers. I’m guessing that the availability of WMC compatible CableCARD tuners has significantly increased the number of CableCARDs being acquired for that platform. I expect that when TiVo reports its latest earnings on Feb 23rd we will greater than 40,000 TiVo-owned gross additions.

    Anyway, my point is that CableCARD is available and the new rules that went into effect last year that made self-install possible has improved the experience. We still have a long way to go and the availability of a soft-CableCARD would help spur retail adoption.

    Boxee is trying to take their OTT box and convert it into a Digital Cable Ready box which it isn’t. There are plenty of commercial alternatives to Boxee at a reasonable cost. Adding to the cable operators cost by not allowing them to encrypt their basic tier is ridiculous. Theft of service and truck rolls are “real” costs that impact the bottom-line.

  11. From what I’ve read on the Tivo forums, Cablecards themselves work fine, but the tuning adapters needed for switched digital video (SDV) still have issues.

    Even back when I had basic cable (channels 2-16 for $8/month) I used Amazon video to download cable shows to my Tivo for far less than paying monthly for ‘extended basic’ ($58/month).

    Now that I’m OTA-only I still buy shows (now in HD!) from Amazon, in addition to getting the absolute best picture quality on my broadcast channels.

  12. Mark, you misunderstand me. I am not giving the cable companies a pass. I’m saying CableCARD integration is a big investment for CE companies to make, especially a small company like Boxee – it takes months (or more) of engineering and drives hardware prices up. At least they can now self certify but it’s still a pricey and risky proposition. And one reason why there are so very few CableCARD products on the market. By comparison, Boxee’s OEM Live TV tuner handles clear QAM out of the box. (Boxee’s petition to the FCC is to make/keep basic cable unencrypted and available without requiring a CableCARD or cable company set-top box.) Again, the gist of the post is – cut the inconvenience. So I’m all for making CableCARDs work (and glad to see TiVo cite my previous story on the matter to the FCC) if that’s the best we can do for the time being as Chucky expects.

    Sam, true splitting cable/theft can be a problem in MDUs – but every single family home in the America shouldn’t be penalized. If a truck roll is required to turn on/off clear QAM, I’d say that’s a problem with how the MSOs manage their network and I can’t imagine unencrypted digital cable would somehow require significantly more service calls… and suspect it’d result in fewer calls or visits than retail CableCARD-related issues.

    Bill, pairing can still be a problem depending on who you get and if they read the numbers right. Just ask commentor Glenn how his recent TiVo Elite install went on Comcast (with no SDV or TA).

    Recently upgraded to a lifetime Tivo Elite (very happy mostly) and getting a working Cable Card took weeks, multiple self-installs with different cards then finally a truck roll. Makes you dread the day you ever buy another TiVo.

    As Sam said, things are better… but not necessarily good. Incidentally, I had better luck with a FiOS CableCARD self-install and online pairing/registration than an actual tech did calling one in. Ironic?

  13. Incidentally, I had better luck with a FiOS CableCARD self-install and online pairing/registration than an actual tech did calling one in.

    This was my experience as well. When I first got FiOS, it took the better part of 30 minutes before the installer got all four (2 S-cards each in 2 TiVO HD’s) cards working. (And don’t get me started on repeatedly explaining to them “No, I don’t have 4 televisions….”)

    When I got them all replaced with two M-cards, it took me less than a minute for each one.


  14. Are cable cards really the future? Or just a temporary stop-gap?

    It would seem that soon enough there will be a Verizon or Comcast or Time Warner “app” that lives on your TV set and serves as your gateway to whatever content you’re willing to pay for: they’ll be a lot more “on demand” type shows from existing networks, and the difference between HBO, Showtime, Netflix and Hulu et al., will be pretty minimal.

    The incentive to consumers to keep some sort of tie to the various pay TV providers will be cheaper internet service. It would be very easy for cord cutters to wind up facing bandwidth caps and higher usage fees.

    Until the FCC or Congress steps in and removes that option since it encourages oligopolies, but that’s a whole different story.

  15. Alan, if the tv-based apps use one’s broadband connection in theory they’d be subjected to the same caps or face some sort of anticompetitive legal action – I don’t see them trying. UNLESS a cable set-top box/hub receives the content via their dedicated link and that box then beams the content around the house. Yeah, guess that’s how they’ll do it.

  16. Tuning adapter, hmm, sounds like a little plug. I had no idea what it was until I got my second gen CC (I actually had a gen 1 CC and tv). I thought it would be a tiny little thing, but It’s the size of a cable box and requires it’s own power! In this day and age of miniaturization, the cable companies should be ashamed of themselves for coming up with a solution like this. The thing runs hot too! My usb cable card tuner is dwarfed by this thing.

    The windows setup for it is not pretty either, but after it is set up, it works pretty well. Too bad the quality of the over compressed cable channels is so bad. Wasn’t sdv supposed to fix that?

  17. “Tuning adapter, hmm, sounds like a little plug … but It’s the size of a cable box and requires it’s own power!”


    “Too bad the quality of the over compressed cable channels is so bad.”

    While the FCC should fix the first bug by mandating an IP backchannel to ensure a level playing field with MSO equipment, in the meantime, there is a pretty simple fix for both of these bugs available from the POSIX command line:

    rm /CurrentHome
    touch /FiosFootprint/NewHome

  18. Greg, yeah prior to release it was originally described as a USB dongle. But I guess in an effort to save the engineering expense both Motorola and Cisco ended up reusing set-top box hardware. So in the end customer inflicted with SDV must acquire a cable box to power their TiVo box – diminishing the effectiveness of CableCARDs for retail devices.

  19. I cut the cord in July 2010. Going w/a TiVo w/lifetime and a commercial antenna. It paid for itself in about 10 months. If I were doing it now, only thing I’d change is I’d build a gray hoverman antenna, like I did for my friends who just cut the cord this weekend.

    My point is this: it’s going to take an enormous amount for the cable/sat companies to provide anywhere near the convenience of OTA with an antenna. I can hook up as many TV’s as I wish to buy equipment for. And I can buy whatever piece of equipment I prefer. I want netflix on my set top box, I don’t need the blessing of DirecTV or Time Warner, I just buy the box I want that has it. I want to use amazon PPV. Fine. Or maybe blockbuster instead.

    All of that on top of not paying monotonically increasing fees.

    There is just too much creativity in the market driving costs downward for me to continue sending my money to a set of companies who are rigidly hanging on to a business model that assumes they are the only communications technology available. What I really wish for more than anything is competition in last mile infrastructure. Then see how fast equipment manufacturers and last mile service providers build interoperable systems.

    End of rant.

  20. @Chucky,

    Since Verizon (and AT&T btw) has now stopped rolling out FiOS TV service to new areas, and they’re still rather small nationally, the fact that they’re a great Cable Card home doesn’t really impress me that much. I’m never going to have the option to switch to them. Looks like they’d rather sell cell phones thru Comcast for the moment…


    My problem with the whole basic cable thing is the fact that its SD only. Honestly I don’t/won’t watch anything on SD anymore. I do agree that clear QAM is far more convenient, but unless that extends to clear QAM HD versions of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox I’m not sure I care much at all really.


    If Cable Cards were self-configuring, or didn’t require ANYBODY to read long strings of hex digits to another person over the phone (without reading them back of course, who could make a mistake typing in such a thing?) it would probably work perfectly. If you think the cable companies can’t do the same thing with IP backchannels you’re not thinking hard enough. The FCC just needs to weigh in on the whole self-configuring thing with Cable Cards (and do the back channel thing to eliminate tuning adapters of course).

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