FCC Approves Proposal To Spark Set-Top Cable Box Openness And Innovation

cable box
If anyone was concerned that appointing a former cable industry insider as the FCC chairman would mean that the regulatory body would favor the cable industry, those concerns have been completely obliterated over the past few years. First there was the ruling on net neutrality, which sent telecoms into a tizzy, and we have a ruling that already has the cable industry spitting fire.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued a proposal last month that would give cable customers the freedom to ditch their service provider-supplied cable box in favor of units made by third-parties. Making this move would not only allow customers to save on leasing/rental fees on often outdated and power-hungry cable box hardware, but also give customers access to devices made by companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon which know a thing or two about technological innovations — something that the cable industry has to be dragged kicking and screaming to get accomplished.

Well, the cable industry is in for a rude awakening, as the FCC just passed the proposal by a 3 to 2 margin (the three Democratic commissioners voted for, while the two Republican counterparts voted against). The approval sparks an "information-gathering process” that will give the FCC and cable providers the opportunity to hash out the details on how to actually implement the proposal.

tom wheeler
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

The FCC says that its proposal to “unlock the box” is meant to “create a framework for providing innovators, device manufacturers, and app developers the information they need to develop new technologies, reflecting the many ways consumers access their subscription video programming today.”

Under the proposal, pay-TV providers would be required to deliver the following three streams to third-party set-top box manufacturers:

  • Service discovery: Information about what programming is available to the consumer, such as thechannel listing and video-on-demand lineup, and what is on those channels.
  • Entitlements: Information about what a device is allowed to do with content, such as recording.
  • Content delivery: The video programming itself.

The FCC makes it clear that streams would not be controlled by a government mandate, and would instead be distributed in a “format that conforms to specifications set by an independent, open standards body.”

Not surprisingly, the venom is already spewing from content providers, with AT&T SVP of Federal Regulatory writing, “While consumers are embracing an apps-based approach that offers a variety of content on more than 450 devices, the FCC has chosen to go down a path that threatens the very competition and innovation that has led to this vibrant marketplace.”

The vitriol against the proposal was also shared by the two dissenting voices on the FCC board, courtesy of Ajit Pai [PDF] and Michael O’Rielly [PDF].

“It doubles down on the necessity of having a box, substituting one intrusive regulatory regime for another,” wrote Commissioner Pai. “Essentially, it would introduce an entirely new set of boxes into consumers’ homes. Because this proposal moves us further away from the objective of dropping the box and because it takes a 20th century approach to this 21st century problem, I cannot support this Notice.”

The FCC is opening open a 60-day comment period, and if ratified, the industry will have two years to comply with the ruling.