Right-to-Attach in Walled Gardens is Just As Important as Net Neutrality

I'm an analog cable subscriber and was hoping to upgrade to an HDTV this holiday season, and apparently I'm not alone. Before I buy-in, I've been considering the freedom that "going digital" should give me compared to the old analog world. The primary reason I haven't "upgraded" to digital cable up to this point comes down to TiVo, it and the freedom that devices like it that connect to an analog coax cable give me. Digital technology is supposed to deliver more, not less freedom, isn't it? It's not clear that upgrading to digital cable gives me the freedoms I'm used to.

Diving into the digital cable world looks to be a kludge of coax, daisy-chained set-top boxes (STBs), and IR repeaters. I've resisted--even when my cable provider was so bold as to remove programming away from my analog line-up to lure me into digital. Digital satellite television can be just as bad--you're generally tied into the provider's hardware. I've even considered foregoing cable altogether, throwing up an antenna, buying a device like an AppleTV to download shows via iTunes over the Internet just to avoid this mess, but I'm not sure my TV watching habits could adjust to the lack of mindless channel-surfing.

Some might say, well, just take the plunge, lots of people are using 3rd party devices like TiVo with digital cable providers. The problem is, there doesn't seem to be a guarantee that the cable provider won't somehow disable the connection. For example, up in New England, some cable subscribers that have to kludge together a STB to their TiVo via a serial cable just to get the channels to change in unison have had the rug pulled out from under them by an (arbitrary?) software update to the STB by the cable provider.

Well that's okay, CableCARD fixes that. It was supposed to, but those who have bought-in are receiving letters from their cable providers saying those devices will be rendered useless as the cable provider upgrades its network to switch digital and more bandwidth conserving technologies (and we now know it needs the bandwidth). And what's the cable providers' solution? Back to the kludge: the subscriber's 3rd party devices will need to somehow attach to a STB to continue to receive programming. And who knows if those STBs will continue to function, as the New Englanders are finding out the hard way?

The thing is, a user has to be pretty dedicated to want to go through all of this trouble to get their cool 3rd party device to work on the closed and often-changing cable network. The cable providers know this, and further, have a financial incentive to prevent TiVo-like devices from working. That incentive comes from a number of sources and revenue streams:

  • Monthly rental fees for STBs and DVRs;

  • Deriving revenue from on-demand video (both from consumers and the content providers); and

  • Advertisers that embed ads in program guides or other interactive applications.

Cable has a real financial interest in subscribers using their boxes--and because of that would far prefer to implement technologies to maintain its gatekeeper / monopoly status. Even though it calls its newer technology "OpenCable," it's "open" in name only. Cable doesn't open up its standards for switch digital and other two-way services, and allow anyone to build to those standards. Instead, historically its solution for everything is to drop a closed and proprietary STB between the network and the innovative 3rd party device, and then even limit that functionality until consumers give up. Cable maintains a walled garden in the realm of content delivery and has slowly been expanding its reach into technology, by only allowing its own devices to access all the content it has to offer. It's like the old AOL that had private content you could only access over the Internet with its proprietary software, instead of a traditional web browser. AOL gave that model up when it realized in long run it could make more revenue by being open. Of course, AOL had to open up because it had literally thousands of ISP competitors and millions of content competitors at the time; cable has only a handful of competitors, and too often zero in a consumer's local market.

3rd party devices compete with cable's revenue making STBs and STB-only content. If you haven't made the connection with net neutrality yet, what is the most convenient way to receive content outside the walled garden? The Internet--that is, unless cable figures out a way to limit your access to other online sources. Or has it already?

And so this holiday season (if I can convince my wife), I'm going to do my best to "stay open" and rely on technologies that deliver and share content without unreasonable restrictions, and hope that in the near future cable opens up (or the FCC forces them to).

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