Is it time to say goodbye to cable companies’ set-top transmission boxes, the monthly charges that come with them, and a possible entertainment content choke point?

The FCC has approved a Notice of Proposed Rule Making to allow consumers to access cable and cable programming through other means, not just cable companies’s set-top boxes.

The FCC had released a fact sheet in January that detailed the reasoning behind this shift. The agency says that “99% of pay-TV subscribers are chained to their set-top boxes,” that they pay “on average $231 in rental fees annually” per household, and that these new rules will “tear down anti-competitive barriers and pave the way for software, devices and other innovative solutions.” Like what?

Seeking greater access

The FCC says it plans to create a new framework to permit audiences to access their subscription services however they wish. For instance, there is a Time Warner Cable app on the Roku digital media player that would allow users to access all of their paid Time Warner content through the Roku player. These are they types of new access possibilities that the FCC seeks to foster.

The agency has identified “three core information streams” that cable and satellite companies must give to those creating new devices or apps.

  • Service discovery: Information about what programming is available to the consumer, such as the channel listing and video-on-demand lineup, and what is on those channels.
  • Entitlements: Information about what a device is allowed to do with content, such as recording.
  • Content delivery: The video programming itself

To achieve these goals, the FCC “recommends that [these streams] be made available to the creators of competitive devices and navigation solutions using any published, transparent format that conforms to specifications set by an independent, open standards body.”

The FCC states that this approach will allow greater access to content for consumers, including by independent, minority and international providers. But this shift will not affect existing contracts with the traditional video-distribution regime, will maintain strong copyright protection, and will protect privacy.

Opponents, proponents

These new regulations have been criticized by Michael Powell, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. He has said the proposal “would require an enormous amount of time, effort, re-engineering and cost.” Further,  “it would take four, five, six, seven years to fully implement, even by [the agency’s] own admission, and by that time, who knows what the video marketplace will look like, or whether this is a solution in search of a problem.” Opponents have formed the Future of TV Coalition to resist the FCC plan.

Google, Amazon, Netflix and other “competitive networks” have sided with the FCC. Chip Pickering, CEO of Incompas, which is a trade association proponents have formed, says that, “Each consumer has invested thousands of dollars into the box without having any ownership. That’s a monopoly business model.”

But Paul Glist, a lawyer and privacy expert for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, calls the prospective FCC rule change, “a gift to Google to give them access to the information that is moving away from them in the marketplace.” He asserts this would be another way for Google to target ads toward consumers, giving the tech giant access in turn to their information.

The rules have not been put into effect. The Feb. 18 FCC commission approval begins a“fact-finding dialogue” that leads to new, permanent, regulations. The new measures must be approved by an “independent, open standards body,” which has “openness in membership, a balance of interests, due process, an appeals process and consensus.” That means that the FCC will need time to craft rules and there will be a public comment period before regulations take effect.