FCC moves to unlock the cable box


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday to formally consider rules that would make it easier for companies like Google and TiVo to manufacture pay-television boxes, which supporters say will deliver better options for consumers and save them money.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking approved Thursday recommends requiring cable, satellite and telecommunications companies open access to their video feeds for companies looking to build the boxes. The feeds would also be available to developers building applications to access the programming.

Both of the commission's Republicans opposed the item.

Public interest advocates and the commission’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, say the proposal would allow other companies to compete with pay-television providers like Comcast and DirecTV, who control the rental market for the boxes.

“The law mandates it, technology allows it, the industry at one time proposed something similar to it, and consumers deserve a break and a choice,” Wheeler said prior to the vote at the agency’s February open meeting.

Under the proposed rules, pay-TV providers would be required to provide not only their video feeds to manufacturers but also information about what programs are available to viewers and how the device is allowed to treat the content. They would be governed by standards set up by an external body.

Supporters say that more competition in the market would lead to better products for consumers, like smoother navigation systems through which they can peruse their programming options and the integration of streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu.

But the proposal has rankled the pay-TV industry, which the FCC says brings in about $20 billion a year from renting the boxes.

A cable-led coalition formed to oppose the changes says they could hurt copyright protections for content producers and say that new entrants to the market would not be subject to the same data privacy protections that govern pay-TV providers.

Opponents have said that the solution is to move away from the set-top box system entirely.

“My goal is pretty simple; our goal should not be to unlock the box, it should be to eliminate the box,” said Ajit Pai, the senior Republican commissioner.

Wheeler said that protections in the current system will remain if the rules are approved.

“Technology has advanced to a point where this is possible without changing the functioning of the pay-TV system and its copyright protections and its security,” he said.

The proposal approved on Thursday requires pay-TV providers to use a security system to protect their content but does not mandate a specific system that companies must use.

The item is backed by public interest groups like Public Knowledge, as well as some tech trade groups like INCOMPAS, which represents a set of companies that challenge incumbent players, and the Internet Association.

It is also supported by companies like Google and TiVo, which could develop products taking advantage of new rules. (A Google executive denied last week that the firm had a product ready-to-go should the rules be approved.)

Reaction on Capitol Hill has been mixed, with some lawmakers supporting the proposal but others raising concerns about privacy and the impact the rules would have on minority programmers. 

The item approved on Thursday is only the first step towards the proposed new rules. Interested parties will now be able to comment on the proposal, and the commission will have to vote again before they are adopted. Industry groups have also not yet ruled out suing the commission over some aspects of the rules.