FCC Says it's Time to Break Free from Proprietary Cable TV Boxes

The days of having to lease a set top box from your cable provider may be coming to an end. The Federal Communication Commission is proposing a new regulation that would let other companies such as Apple, Amazon, TiVo, and Roku make their own boxes cable subscribers can use to watch TV without being tied the set top boxes they're stuck with today.

FCC wants to open the cable and satellite set top box marketFCC wants to open the cable and satellite set top box market

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled the proposed regulation change this week as a way to spur innovation in set top box technology, give consumers choices, and make the devices more affordable.

"Ninety-nine percent of pay-TV subscribers are chained to their set-top boxes because cable and satellite operators have locked up the market," the FCC said in its proposal overview. "Lack of competition has meant few choices and high prices for consumers—on average, $231 in rental fees annually for the average American household."

Prices cable subscribers pay climbed 185 percent since 1994, which stands in sharp contrast to the 90 percent decrease in cost we've seen for computers, mobile phones, and televisions.

Assuming the proposed changes are approved, Apple, Amazon, Google, and other streaming TV device makers could sell their own set top boxes that blend together features they already offer with cable television support. They could also offer their own unified interfaces for finding and watching the content they offer, content from app partners, and from channels through cable subscriptions.

Searching for "Firefly," for example, on a cable-ready Apple TV would show every place the series is available—whether it's a TV channel included with your cable subscription, the iTunes Store, or streaming video apps on your Apple TV.

A senior-level FCC representative told The Mac Observer the proposal is all about freeing set top boxes from cable service providers. Opening the set top box market to third parties means consumers wouldn't need Cable Cards and proprietary boxes to watch shows through their cable provider; they could use a single box for all of the television content they watch.

This proposal doesn't create the á la carte channel model many cable and satellite subscribers are asking for, but it does get us a little closer. Consumers could pay for a basic channel package through their cable provider, and buy just an HBO subscription through an in-device app.

Television makers can take advantage of the new regulation, too, and cut out the set top box completely—assuming you don't want content available only through the iTunes Store.

For consumers, the FCC's plan sounds like a great deal: they can buy the set top device they want instead of leasing what their service provider offers, and they can also watch the streaming content they want without having to switch device inputs on their television. For cable and satellite service providers, however, the changed regulations would cut into revenue—and that's something they no doubt don't want.

It's a safe bet cable and satellite providers will push to shoot down the regulation change. They have only a couple weeks to make the case for keeping set top boxes closed and proprietary because the proposal is scheduled for a vote on February 18. Translation: get ready for the rhetoric explaining why more choices, lower prices, and better interfaces are bad for consumers.

The possibility of ditching the expensive leases on sub-par cable and satellite set top boxes is pretty exciting, as is the idea of plugging a coax into an Apple TV and watching whatever we want through our cable subscription or the iTunes Store without stopping to think about where the shows are coming from. Don't screw this up for us, cable providers.

[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]