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FCC votes to unlock the cable box

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The Federal Communications Commission today approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that seeks to give consumers more choices in the set-top boxes they use to watch cable TV. This will commence the months-long public comment period leading up to a final vote likely later this year.

The FCC is trying to create a software-based replacement for CableCARD (originally a PC Card device for computers but has since expanded to mean any device that uses it, like digital cable boxes, etc.) Theoretically, customers could watch their TV channels on various devices without needing to rent a set-top box from their service provider nor purchase any equipment.

This proposal has been contested not surprisingly by cable companies. Critics say that it would force cable companies to create new set-top boxes to then charge customers for renting these new devices. FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, clarified the proposal to dispel those concerns:

“There is nothing in here that allows third parties to disaggregate cable content or sell advertising around it… It takes the same system that goes to the cable box today with the same structures and moves it through a different box requiring the same structures. As a result, existing copyrights and programming agreements are unaffected, consumer privacy is protected, emergency alerts are passed through and child protection laws are unaffected. Nothing in this proposal slows down or stops cable innovation.”

Pay-TV companies would have two full years to comply. There are no new standards being codified either–Wheeler recommends that the information streams “be available to the creators of competitive solutions using any published, transparent format that conforms to specifications set by an independent, open standards body…in compliance with [what] Congress [has already] mandated [in the 1996 Telecommunications Act] that consumers should have a choice.”

For more on this topic, check out this article from Ars Technica.