The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to approve new rules that would open the cable box to third-party competition, making it so that TV watchers can own their own cable boxes rather than paying as much as $231 a year to rent the boxes from cable TV providers. This could also create improvement in cable box technology, as providers will have to compete with other companies providing greater offerings in their own set-top boxes.
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That proposal passed 3-2 in a vote of the FCC commissioners today. It will now move into a comment period, where supporters and critics will be able to publicize their arguments. A final vote is expected by the end of the year.
If it’s ultimately implemented, a lot of American TV-watchers will be thrilled. And tech companies, like Apple and Google, would relish the opportunity to get into consumers’ living rooms. Google is said to be already testing what could eventually become its version of the cable box.
The cable companies, though, aren’t happy about any of this. And why would they be, when a $20 billion industry hangs in the balance?
One counterargument is that cable providers, like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, are moving away from cable boxes in favor of apps. Indeed, Time Warner Cable’s app is quite good, and Comcast’s innovative X1 cable box works more like an Apple TV or Roku than a traditional, cumbersome set-top box. If the proposal goes through, it could be several years before there’s truly an open cable box marketplace—and by that time, the cable companies could already have moved on from physical boxes altogether.
Critics also argue that more government regulation of the cable box will hinder innovation—even though the proposed regulatory measures are designed specifically to do the opposite.
Anything that opens the technology up for competition is a good thing, in this writer’s eyes. We’ll see if the final vote later this year actually comes through, or if the cable companies are able to convince the FCC to remain on their side.