The FCC's plan to replace your cable box with apps hits a snag

The FCC's plan to replace your cable box with apps hits a snag

First, the Federal Communications Commission had a grand plan to blow up the set-top box and free consumers from the confines of their service provider. Then the FCC tempered that objective by asking the cable companies to create more apps. Now, the FCC has decided on the most moderate move possible: Doing absolutely nothing—at least for now.

The FCC announced on Thursday that a vote on the set-top box proposal would be removed from the September Open Meeting Agenda, after 60 House Democrats sent the commission a letter asking for a delay and more public input. Instead of having the commissioners vote on the proposal it will be placed on the FCC’s “circulation list” where it will “remain under consideration by Commissioners.”

In a joint statement, the three Democrat-appointed FCC Commissioners—Chairman Tom Wheeler, Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessical Rosenworcel—said they remain committed to ending the reign of the little black box sitting underneath television sets across America. “It’s time for consumers to say goodbye to costly set-top boxes,” the Commissioners said. “We have made tremendous progress...we are still working to resolve the remaining technical and legal issues and we are committed to unlocking the set-top box for consumers across this country.”

Those are strong words, but from the longer the set-top box proposal sits in FCC purgatory, the less likely it seems to pass. The make-up of the FCC commisioners will undoubtedly change in the coming years once a new president takes office in 2017. That in itself could kill the effort since the FCC may change its focus under a new administration.

On top of that, many cable companies aren't happy with the FCC’s app plan. Earlier in September, a Comcast spokesperson told The Verge that the FCC’s proposal “would stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing an overly complicated government licensing regime and heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space.”

Creating apps for Internet-based broadcast TV is the way the market is moving anyway. But the FCC proposal tacks on a special requirement to those potential new government-mandated apps: They need to be searchable by third-parties. That way a Roku box or Apple TV, for example, will be able to include search results for broadcast content alongside results from apps like Netflix and Hulu.

The cable companies have escaped that consumer-friendly open search aspect for now—but at least we can expect them to continue making multi-device streaming apps for the foreseeable future.

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