Today (Feb. 18), the FCC voted 3-2 to continue progress on Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to "open up" set-top television boxes, which could revolutionize how consumers watch and pay for TV across the country. If the proposal is eventually passed, a new standard for cable boxes would be created that all companies would need to abide by, enabling customers to buy set-top boxes from third parties.
Consumers who have been frustrated that cable boxes have been slow to evolve have a voice in Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted to support the proposal and commented that “costs are too high, innovation is slow and competition is too limited." Not only would this proposal create a new standard, but an open standard that could be purchased would give customers the option to stop renting a box from their cable provider, which adds a monthly charge onto bills that totals an average of $231 a year, according to a congressional study.
Chairman Wheeler has also stated that 99 percent of pay-TV customers are leasing their boxes, and that this added fee explains why your bill doesn't match the "$99 a month" fee that providers advertise for multi-service packages. Wheeler defends his proposal by referencing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by Bill Clinton, which mandated that pay-TV customers be allowed to choose their own equipment.
The votes for and against the proposal were made on political party lines, just as they were when Net Neutrality was passed, as Democrats Wheeler, Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn supported the bill, while Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly voted against proceeding. Pai and O'Rielly argued that the over-the-top boxes (like the Roku and Apple TV) are providing enough competition already, and to legislate traditional set-top boxes, which O'Rielly called "a relic of the past" isn't a good use of the commission's time.
Pai also complained that the proposal "won't have any impact for years," and that if enacted, the proposal will be "bad for consumers and American content creators." Wheeler responded to these remarks by stating "consumers have no choice today, and Congress mandated that consumers should have choice," and we're not inclined to argue that a cable box that works with all cable television providers would not increase the amount of options the average consumer faces today.
If users could buy their own cable box, the change would bear resemblance to the option we all have today to buy our own modem and router, instead of using the hardware that your provider leases. A review of top cable modems in Tom's Guide found that buying your own hardware proves more affordable in under two years, when compared to monthly rental fees.
If passed, the proposal would open the door for tech companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google to make their own cable boxes that provide even greater integration with devices throughout your household. This open standard is not likely to work with every single provider, as cable and fibre-optic lines work differently, so the new boxes would probably not be compatible with services like Verizon's FiOS.
Once third-party companies are allowed to make universally compatible set-top boxes, makers could eventually create one box to rule your whole entertainment space, combining broadcast TV with gaming, streaming and other applications that fit on your home's biggest screen. And you could stop clicking Source over and over again to switch between devices.