Get ready for a showdown.
The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to move forward with a proposal, known as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, that would force cable companies to allow third-parties to create set-top boxes.
As Motherboard previously reported, the FCC wants to introduce competition in the set-top box market so that consumers are no longer forced to spend an average of $231 per year renting these boxes, such as Comcast's Xfinity X1, making cable TV more affordable for a wider variety of consumers.
"Technology allows it, the industry at one time proposed something similar to it, and the consumers deserve a break and a choice," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at the proposal's hearing. Wheeler was likely referring to CableCARD, a little-used industry standard that allows consumers to access cable TV channels using a PC Card that's plugged into the TV instead of a bulky cable box. The FCC in 2009 described CableCARD as having only "limited success," likely because of early limitations like the inability to receive on-demand programming.
While the proposal is great news for consumers who are tired of renting cable boxes from the likes of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, this is just the first step in a lengthy process that could take the better part of a year to conclude. Up next is a public comment period, which typically lasts for one to two months, in which the FCC solicits feedback on the proposal. That would be followed by period of reply comments. At this point the FCC would move on to a full vote of the proposed regulations taking into account the public comments.
The proposal may strain an already-tense relationship between consumers and cable companies: consumers will likely support the measure if for no other reason than it will lower prices, while cable companies will be reluctant to give up the nearly $20 billion in annual revenue they earn in rental fees.
"Big cable and its allies are predictably opposed to the FCC's action," said John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney at the Public Knowledge consumer advocacy group. "With so many billions of dollars in rental fees at stake, we can expect the opponents of competition to make every argument they can as to why the FCC should preserve the status quo. Nevertheless, we're confident that the case for unlocking the box is clear. Users will benefit, and the law, the business case, and the technological realities all support the FCC's proposal."
Given that consumers can already own their cable modem and can bring just about any unlocked smartphone to the wireless carrier of their choice, it's only right to wonder why we're stuck with having to use clunky old set-top boxes when all we want to do is watch reruns of House Hunters over and over again.