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FCC chairman Tom Wheeler praises Comcast as it moves away from set-top boxes

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Speaking in a press conference yesterday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler praised Comcast for its decision to partly unbundle its pay-TV service from its proprietary set-top box, according to a report from Ars Technica. Wheeler said it "points a way forward" for the industry to stop forcing customers to lease hardware they don't need. Cable boxes represent a significant amount of revenue for providers, both through leasing to customers and programming deals with networks. But Comcast and others also claim proprietary technology is necessary, despite there being easy avenues to provide services through apps.

Cable companies blasted the FCC back in February after it announced plans to mandate pay-TV services be made available to makers of third-party set-top boxes. But Comcast showed a change of heart last week when it announced its Xfinity app would come to Roku streaming devices and Samsung smart TVs later this year. Wheeler says it illustrates the ease with which cable companies can provide consumer-friendly benefits, without "all these other horrible things" the industry claims would happen if services were separated from unnecessary hardware.

Comcast goes kicking and screaming into the future

"I think that what Comcast just did is proving our point that you can take a third-party device, put set-top box functionality into it, and protect copyright, protect the economic ecosystem, not have to rebuild the network," Wheeler said. "That is the essence of our proposal: that you can safely move content to a third-party device." He did concede that Comcast's move is only a half-measure, as the Xfinity app is on a limited number of devices and Comcast could at any time discontinue it.

Comcast, however, remains defiant. The company happens to agree that its Xfinity app is a tightly controlled product, and it wants to keep it that way. "The Chairman suggests that our app shows why his proposal can work, but the opposite is true," Comcast said in a statement given to Ars Technica. "The Chairman’s proposal favors a government-imposed set-top box mandate that goes well beyond expanding equipment options for consumers to instead taking apart existing video services to create new services." Comcast says the FCC's proposal, which would draft an enforceable industry standard, creates "numerous harms," like increasing the cost for consumers, risking user privacy, and undermining licensing deals.

The battle for the cable box will only intensify

The battle will only intensify over the coming months as the FCC ponders issuing rules later this year. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, of which Comcast is a member, threatened to sue the regulatory body over the issue. But Wheeler doesn't appear too fazed. "Did you say that we might get sued?" he said. "We've never had that experience before." Given the FCC's strong track record with net neutrality, Wheeler's casual sarcasm shouldn't be mistaken for smugness. As Ars Technica points out, the cable industry lobby has lost three similar cases in the past.