The FCC Has a Plan to Free Us From Our Cable Boxes
If you do cable TV, you’re a renter. You need that set-top-box that connects the cable to your television, and chances are, your cable company won’t let you buy the thing. You’re forced to rent it, paying that monthly fee for years on end, shelling out far more than that box is really worth. But that might change.
Today, the Federal Communications Commission unveiled a proposal that would force pay-TV providers to offer apps that let you bypass set-top-boxes altogether. Instead of plugging a set-top-box into your TV, you could just use cable through a device of your choice, like a Roku, an Xbox, or a Google Chromecast stick. Plus, you could watch on all sorts of other devices, like phones and tablets. If the new proposal passes, you say goodbye to that monthly fee forever.
It may seem a little late to do something about this particular problem, given that analysts say more people are now cutting the pay TV cord. But there are still tens of millions of people paying for the tube, and the average subscriber pays $231 a year for the things, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and cost the country about $20 billion annually.
Under the FCC’s proposal, providers would be required to develop apps for any device that sold at least 5 million units in the previous year, a senior FCC official said during a press call today. The providers will have control over how the apps work, and how they display and store content. But the FCC will require that the apps provide a comparable experience to viewing TV through a cable box, at least so long as customers are viewing from home. The rules will differ for satellite television providers, which can’t necessarily avoid requiring some sort of set-top-box box, but satellite providers will also be required to offer apps. Large providers would have two years to comply with the new regulations, and smaller providers would have four.
Back in February, the FCC released a document that included a more radical idea of forcing cable companies to provide access to video streams so that any company could make their own set-top-box, providing more access. But TV providers pushed back, arguing that the idea was technologically unfeasible—and that if it did happen, it would create rampant content piracy and allow someone like Google to offer boxes that insert its own advertising into programming.
Under the new proposal, device manufacturers won’t have direct access to video streams, which means that there will be far less room to innovate on new products. The responsibility for creating the app experience will fall directly on the TV providers, which will only have to compete with each other, not third party developers. In that sense, the new proposal is a major compromise. A senior FCC official, however, argued that the proposed rules would do exactly what the agency set out to do in the first place: get rid of those egregious monthly cable box fees.
Consumer advocacy groups welcomed the compromise. “The FCC has made the critical key choice for an open, not closed future,” Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, said in a statement. “By presenting a balanced approach, which takes input from all sides of the debate, the FCC has come down on the side of the consumer, and the innovators of the future.”
But cable providers may still fight this proposal. This is the latest in a string of plans hatched by the FCC to rein in the telecommunications industry, including the agency’s net neutrality rules and new regulations on how much telcos can charge for phone calls made from prisons. The telco industry is currently fighting the the FCC’s net neutrality regulations, and has already defeated the agency’s attempt to stop states from banning municipal Internet service. With $20 billion a year in rental fees on the line, the industry is unlikely to stand still.
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