FCC Drops Plan To Democratize The Cable Box, Pushes New App Agenda

After taking on Internet service providers (ISPs) and wireless carriers with a set of net neutrality rules, it looked as though FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was on the verge of going to war with cable companies next. That was the plan when, earlier this year, Wheeler talked about forcing cable companies to use open standards so that consumers could choose their own set-top box rather than paying rental or leasing fees for sub-par models provided by their service provider. Now the FCC is ditching that plan in favor of apps.

What's that, apps you say? Yes indeed—rather than continue to push for the adoption of third-party set-top boxes, the FCC is set to vote later this month on a proposal that would require cable TV providers to offer free smartphone apps that could be used in place of a box.

Set-Top Box with Cat
Say goodbye to your set-top box (you can keep the cat) - Image Source: Flickr (Andrew Currie)

"Ninety-nine percent of pay-TV subscribers currently lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite or telecommunications provider, paying an average of $231 a year for the privilege, according to a recent analysis. The collective tab is $20 billion annually in rental fees. In a recent study, 84 percent of consumers felt their cable bill was too high," Wheeler stated in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times.

The FCC's goal is the same as it was before. It wants to "end the set-top box stranglehold" that cable companies have on consumers. What's different here is that Wheeler is no longer pushing for an open standard that would effectively force pay TV providers to provide their content to third-party device makers.

Under the new proposal, there would be a licensing body in charge of setting rules for how apps would work, and the FCC would oversee it all. Cable operators would be required to build apps for "widely deployed platforms," including Roku, Apple TV (iOS), Windows, and Android.

Wheeler's proposal also heavily emphasizes integrated search. There would be no discrimination in search, and consumers would be able to look up movies and TV shows with results appearing both for what's offered by their cable provider and through streaming services such as Hulu and Amazon Prime.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on Wheeler's proposal on September 29.