Castles made of sand – Why Android boxes aren’t the real problem.

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Above: Android boxes are designed to look like a standard set-top box system.

BitDepth#1151 for June 28, 2018

And so castles made of sand,

Fall in the sea, eventually…

– Jimi Hendrix

Two weeks ago, a great fuss was raised about the growing presence of Android boxes as a source of pirated entertainment and the resulting damage they were doing to both Free-to-Air (FTA) and paid entertainment sources, specifically cable television and DirecTV.

The fire was properly set by HBO’s VP for Latin America, Javier Figureres who pointed out that “The regulator should have the power to grant licenses and to take them away.”

It’s unclear whether this rather blunt interview, which cast Caribbean regulators in a lethargic light, prompted the Telecommunications Authority (TATT) to announce consultations on the regulation of Android boxes.

TATT has since published a considered first draft call for discussion (PDF) on the issue of Android boxes and it’s going to attract more attention than the authority has experienced in its previous contemplations of regulatory matters.

In most major modern technology adjustments, the situation can be divided into three sectors, the disruptors, the tool and the disrupted.

The Kodi interface

The tool in this case is an app called Kodi.

Kodi is a media player that runs on multiple platforms and has an open programming interface, allowing other developers to add capabilities to the base media management and playback software.

Some of those add-ons tap into the online pool of links to illegally shared entertainment files, music, unlicensed movies and television shows that are available on the Internet.

One add-on developer and aggregator, tvaddons.co, recently was recently hit by legal action and seizures in Canada.

But to worry about the presence of an estimated 80,000 devices built to run Kodi in T&T is to miss the point of the software. A recent update to Kodi makes it possible to run the player on any recent model Android smartphone (it already runs on iOS and the Amazon Fire Stick).

Add to that mix, smart TVs. Few can run Kodi, but if they can successfully access Google’s Play Store, then they probably can.

But Kodi is a bit of a pain to get running. Most users can’t set up the contested features on their own and won’t go through all the steps needed to access the streams that make it more valuable.

There are, however, many tech savvy folks who are willing to make that happen to earn a dollar and increasingly, they will be doing it on devices that aren’t boxes the public have to pay extra for, these versions of Kodi will become active on devices they already own.

There is also a growing cluster of competing products that are easy to find on the Internet that want to make access to content of all kinds easier for timid users.

The viewers who consider an Android box aren’t necessarily doing it to “cut the cable” or because they don’t want to pay for their entertainment, they are doing it because the idea of a programming director is alien to their lifestyle.

Unfortunately, commercial products that address this disinterest in schedules, such as Hulu, are geo-fenced in this country and are unavailable without additional, quasi-legal effort.

Netflix, even the lesser version made available in TT, has enjoyed significant popularity since it became available to local viewers.

This audience wants to watch what they want to watch, when they feel like it.

It’s no surprise then that soon after the launch of Digicel Play, the company admitted that roughly half the traffic on its network was going to Netflix, which offers most of its content a la carte.

Viewers under the age of 25 have no attachment to the idea of a schedule for their viewing and they aren’t going to be developing one either.

Cable providers and FTA services aren’t the only ones that suffered in this sea change. Streaming effectively put an end to street corner pirate movie sales, the little shops and roadside displays of pirated films and television series that were downloaded and burned to DVD for resale.

These young people aren’t evil criminals keen to bankrupt cable providers and FTA services. They want to watch and if you aren’t providing what they want, they can and demonstrably will go elsewhere. Not paying is a lagniappe, not the reason.

The television stations and cable providers affected by this are being disrupted by a fundamental change in consumer taste, not by Android boxes.

It might seem a bit surly to note this, but cable providers survived, no, let’s say thrived, for more than a decade in the region by providing channels that they did not pay for.

It may be true that some channels refused to sell, but that didn’t stop the local companies from providing them anyway. By any measure, that’s stealing and it continued for years, with businesses profiting from reselling intellectual property they didn’t own.

They weren’t sitting back watching it with a bag of popcorn and a bottle of wine, they were taking what might be more tidily described as the proceeds from crime to the bank.

That’s a whole other level of theft.

Watching television and cable entertainment is a habit, and it’s one that’s absurdly easy to break. I haven’t watched FTA television or anything but Nickelodeon (not my choice) for the last two years.

The idea of buying cheap programming to air on local TV is not simply dated, it’s unsustainable and will collapse in the medium term, perhaps even in the short-term.

Local FTA providers need to be in the content creation business if they are going to survive, and they will need to go all in; creating work that can be licensed to create revenue streams if they are going to survive.

Local media houses still see technology disruptions as a problem and not an opportunity. If there are 80,000 set-top boxes running Kodi in T&T, why isn’t the first response the creation of an add-on that streams local content to them, starting with news reports?

Who doesn’t court 80,000 viewers?

Any consultations on Android boxes must emphasise the rock hard realities that the first consultation report amply outlines. Those discussions should focus on plans that develop local media capacity and reach without wasting time on protectionist strategy.