Set-tops not going anywhere anytime soon

Jim BartholdHere's a thought that might be harder to swallow than Aunt Edna's fruitcake: cable set-tops are a necessity and will be around for a long, long while.

It's hard to stomach the thought because no one--and here I'm giving a benefit of the doubt to cable operators--likes the intrusion of a set-top box. TV makers have long shown a penchant for doing anything to avoid having a box between the incoming signal and their receiver. Most recently that's meant putting Internet connections on their TVs to help so-called "cord cutters" slice the cable.

The problem is that at the very least you need a set-top box to get the most from those high end, high def TVs, because even the best antenna only brings in broadcast signals and broadcasters don't carry TNT or Bravo or ESPN or USA or SyFy; they carry ABC and NBC and CBS and Fox.

Others with something to offer also feel the need to diss the old cable set-top while promoting a Google TV or Apple TV or Nintendo or Xbox or Sony or Boxee Box or Roku or whatever flavor of set-top game/entertainment/information/Internet connection is considered the next best way to get your content onto the consumer's TV.

The problem with all those devices is they are, after all, just set-top boxes without many of the bells and whistles and program guides and memory of advanced cable HD DVR (or telco or satellite) set-top boxes.

There is one very good reason to believe that set-tops will be around in 2011 and beyond: They are built to last and change because they are built on a software foundation. The cable set-top, as has been said too many times, is not a channel changer, not a channel guide, not a computer and not a descrambler; it's all of those things. And when it needs to be--and that's pretty damned soon--it will be an Internet connection and a games console and a telephone and whatever else the consumer wants. And the cable/telco/satellite provider will be there to provide it--for a price.

So maybe it's time once and for all to clear the air and get to the foundation of what the new telecommunications space is all about: it's about content, delivered over a fat pipe to some receptacle in a consumer residence that translates that content into the pixels and streams needed to appear on some display device.

The equation's easy. The receptacle is the very-renewable set-top box. The display is the HD or 3D screen. And the content is whatever the consumer wants, whenever the consumer wants it and, eventually, wherever the consumer wants it.

Don't believe me? Just ask the folks at the Phoenix Center, a think tank developed just to look at these kinds of situations and come up with reports that they sell. Its latest report, according to press release, has concluded that government efforts to do away with the set-top or make it a retail device are "unlikely to provide substantial gains in terms of lower costs, lower prices or increased innovation."

Entitled "Wobbling Back to the Fire: Economic Efficiency and the Creation of a Retail Market for Set-Top Boxes," the report further concludes that service providers will build and deploy more innovative devices because "profits are higher and consumers are better off."

While that's about as appetizing as sour egg nog, it's something everyone--including the government--should accept.--Jim