What if all of the devices in your life had a common interface, controlled by a single company, that picked what video content you could easily search and access online? What if that single company had its own economic reasons to support some “channels” and hide others?
Welcome to the world of Xfinity, Comcast’s brand name for its services. You’ve seen the advertising. Now here’s the big idea: If Comcast has its way, Xfinity will be Americans’ window on the world. Basically, our only window.
First, some background. In 1996, Congress passed a law directing the FCC to ensure a competitive retail marketplace for consumer devices used to access cable and satellite pay TV services. That law, Section 629 of the Telecommunications Act, hasn’t brought about the changes Congress wanted. Today, you can choose among hundreds of wireless handsets and innumerable laptops and tablets. But when it comes to the vital category of set-top boxes—that ugly metal thing that plugs into your TV and talks to the wire coming into your house—you have very little choice.
Five years ago, the Obama administration’s National Broadband Plan pointed out that Motorola and Cisco controlled more than 90% of the set-top box market and strongly recommended that the FCC finally implement Section 629. Efforts along these lines then died a quiet death inside the agency. At the end of 2014, Congress passed a law that wipes out the FCC’s old rules on this subject as of September 15, 2015.
So now there’s a tick-tock to this story: it’s time for the Commission to get something workable in place.