FCC Wants To End Cable Box Monopoly


The Federal Communications Commission says cable TV companies should not force customers to rent a cable box but instead let them use third party equipment if they want. It’s an attempt to achieve a goal set down in law 20 years ago.

Way back in 1996, the Telecommunications Act set down a requirement for the FCC to come up with rules to make sure cable customers had the option to get a cable box from somebody other than the pay-TV provider. For the most part that’s been a bust to date.

The FCC has now proposed rules that would mean cable companies have to make their information streams available to third parties using “any published, transparent format that conforms to specifications set by an independent, open standards body.”

The term “information streams” covers three elements: the actual programming itself (ie the channels); the details of which channels are covered by the customer’s subscription; and any anti-piracy protection.

The rules would also mean cable companies would have to be much clearer in billing to explain what proportion of the bill is for programming and what covers rental of the box.

Although the proposal has passed by a 3-2 vote of commissioners, that doesn’t mean an immediate change in rules. The FCC will now run a public consultation before drawing up and voting on the introduction of new rules.

If passed, the rules would have two main effects. One is that third parties could compete with the cable companies by offering boxes that are cheaper to rent, available to buy outright, or given away free of charge.

The other is that third party boxes might show programming information in a different format, for example Google’s frequent attempts to bring its search technology to TV navigation. Such boxes could also include over-the-top programming and have a Roku-style search that looks for programming on both traditional TV channels and VOD services.

Unsurprisingly the cable industry isn’t too happy with the proposals. Comcast’s David Cohen said the idea “strays well beyond the FCC’s authority under the Communications Act, and would violate copyright and other statutory and constitutional protections.”

Both cable companies and the Republican commissioners who voted against making the proposals are arguing that that the solution isn’t to push third-party boxes, but instead open up the cable company boxes to carrying more apps with access to third-party content.

(Image credit: By Andrew Currie [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)


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