The FCC on Thursday unveiled a revised proposal in its ongoing effort to create competition in the cable set-top box market.
Under the new plan, pay TV providers would be required to offer free apps that allow you to watch all the programming you’d normally watch through a cable box, with no restrictions, on a streaming device. They could make the apps themselves, or “provide the necessary code” to another developer that would make the apps on their behalf.
That means that if subscribe to cable, you’ll no longer have to rent a cable box from the company. If you own a streaming device, like a Roku or an Apple TV, you’ll be able to watch everything through an app that would function like Netflix or Hulu’s app does now.
Those apps would have to be available on any “widely deployed platform.” The FCC defines that as any operating system — not device family — that has sold more than five million units in the US in the most recent year. For example: Roku OS is a platform, but Roku boxes are not.
In this scenario, pay TV providers would also have to open up their content catalogues to a universal search function. If you searched for a certain program on your streaming device of choice, you’d see its availability on streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video as well as
your Comcast or Charter app.
The FCC would also prohibit pay TV providers from forcing device makers to favour their apps in search results. (An FCC senior official did concede that individual agreements could still be made to adjust the order of returns, though.)
The idea here, as it was when the FCC first voted to “open up” the set-top box in February, is to make it so you don’t have to lease a cable box from a cable provider to watch cable TV programming.
Instead, that programming would more easily exist alongside streaming services on your smart devices, be they a phone, tablet, smart TV, media streamer, or game console. You’d still have to pay however much your cable service costs, but “cable” would become just another app, accessible in the same way you’d use YouTube or Hulu on a Chromecast or Roku. While it may not be a radical change, it could still help you save cash, and defragment the way you consume TV.
The new proposal still might help with that that, but it takes a different tack. In effect, it adopts many aspects of an alternate plan the pay TV industry proposed this past June in response to the FCC’s original pitch.
At first, the FCC wanted pay TV providers to give their programming information to third-party device makers such as Apple and Google. Those third parties would then be able to put their own user interfaces over the top of that content. You could access your cable subscription without renting a cable box, and Apple, let’s say, would be free to present it in its own devices, with its own UI.
As you can guess, this plan made a lot of cable and media companies angry. They argued that it put too much control in tech firms’ hands, cited piracy concerns, noted how they make specific deals to determine the order of channels (something a new UI could upend), and generally proclaimed it too technically difficult to implement. They also worried that a third party like Google would insert its own ads over their content.
Of course, it could also cost them billions in revenue — the FCC estimates that the average American household pays $231 in set-top box rental fees per year, a number that’s only gone up over the past couple of decades.
Those losses might not change, but now, the FCC says pay TV providers would have end-to-end control over their apps. Any deals they have with content companies would stay in place, so nothing about their channel order, licensing, advertising, or copyright arrangements would have to change. Third-party tech companies would have little, if any, ability to repackage the content of the pay TV providers’ apps.
Cable companies would also be able control how DVR recording functionality works within those apps, with the only requirement being that they provide “a similar experience” to what’s available through cable boxes. All the FCC wants now is for TV content to get to apps on major streaming devices in the first place — a process many cable companies have already started as more and more customers cut the cord.
Even still, some pay TV operators are irked by parts of the new proposal. For one, those companies would have to use whatever development platforms are needed to make those apps possible en masse; before, they proposed only having to build the software if a streaming device allowed for web apps made with HTML5.
More significantly, the new plan calls for pay TV providers and programmers to create a standard licence for getting cable apps onto third party devices, instead of allowing them to negotiate different terms with each device manufacturer. The FCC says it’d “serve as a backstop” to ensure that licence works within its rules.
It’s that last bit that’s caused another wave of pushback from the cable companies and trade groups. The likes of
MPAA, and the
NCTA have issued statements decrying the new proposal, with most of the complaints focused on the FCC’s ability to watch over licensing terms. The NCTA in particular said the plan would result in a “bureaucratic morass” that would “slow the deployment of video apps, ignore copyright protections, and infringe on consumer privacy.”
Nevertheless, though the new plan is a step removed from the FCC’s original intentions, consumer advocacy groups seem to approve.
John Bergmayer, Senior Counsel at Public Knowledge, said in a statement: “The modified approach [FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler] has described today addresses the legitimate concerns raised by these parties while preserving the benefits to the public, and fulfilling the Congressional directive that requires the FCC to ensure that viewers do not need to rent set-top boxes from their providers.”
Whatever the case, the FCC plans to vote on the proposal on September 29. If passed, cable companies with at least one million subscribers would have two years to create apps that comply with the new rules. We’re likely to see some legal drama before all this is over, but either way, the days of having to rent a cable box may be coming to an end.
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