Question for Comcast Xfinity or Verizon Fios: Why Do Cable Boxes Still Exist?

February 19, 2020 Topic: Technology Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: CableCable TVStreamingNetflixComcastVerizonFios

Question for Comcast Xfinity or Verizon Fios: Why Do Cable Boxes Still Exist?

How do these things still exist in the age of streaming services? Time to make them a thing of the past. 

Question: why in an age of streaming services, smartphones and countless apps that can do just about anything do we still—in nearly all instances—need a cable box to sign up for a subscription and watch programming from Comcast or your preferred cable provider? Shouldn’t these devices be obsolete by now?

Now to be fair, there are many situations where it is not always the case. However, by and large, the average, run-of-the-mill cable customer, with say Comcast Xfinity, will somehow need a cable box or pay a rental fee for one. Otherwise, they won’t have full access to their channel lineup, on-demand services, and saved programming on their DVR.

I will admit you can buy a cable box, but that is a pretty rare situation these days. During my decade-plus working for a cable company, and talking to thousands of customers over the phone, I never spoke to one person who ever had a purchased box.

Why not just get rid of these seemingly antiquated pieces of machinery? I could easily imagine a situation where cable companies made all cable boxes optional and created a setup where a new customer would download a Comcast or Verizon TV app, and—as long as they had a high-speed internet connection—could sign up for service right then and there. Heck, they could make it a requirement that you have to have their internet service and give a bundled discount to make it more attractive. All TV channel lineup options, DVR and on-demand services, as well as pay-per-view, would be all controlled by the app—no cable box needed or required. Easy. 

The good news is that Comcast, who I would argue does have a good TV product, seems to be moving a little closer to this direction. There is the Xfinity Flex service, free with your Xfinity internet connection, that does embrace streaming to a certain extent and is free of charge. However, you still need a connection box from Comcast which seems silly. Comcast does offer excellent streaming capabilities through the Xfinity Stream app as well, however, you need to have an Xfinity cable subscription and a cable box tied to your account to get the vast majority of the programming. Bummer. 

Now, many will say what is the big deal about having a box to connect to cable in the first place? After all, you still often have to purchase a Roku player, Amazon Firestick or another device depending on the operating system of your smart TV. So why the big deal? Well, even if the cable box does not need to go away, cable operators need to think more and more like a streaming service, as that is what Millennials and Gen Z are going to consider as their top form of TV entertainment. And don’t forget, you don’t pay a monthly fee for streaming players or your own separate player or stick—once you own it, you own it.

The cable box is going to go away, but cable companies might disappear with them. A shame. 

Harry J. Kazianis serves as a senior director at the Center for the National Interest and Executive Editor of their publishing arm, the National Interest. Harry enjoys writing about technology issues and products from a real-world perspective, having previously worked in the telecommunications industry from 2000-2011. You can follow him (or yell at him) on Twitter: @Grecianformula.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.