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FCC scraps its ambitious cable box plan in favor of apps

FCC scraps its ambitious cable box plan in favor of apps

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The Federal Communications Commission is making huge changes to its plan to overhaul cable boxes, scrapping much of the initial idea in favor of having cable companies make new apps.

The plan requires large cable providers to create apps that offer access to all of their programming, including live and on-demand content. Those apps would have to be available on "all widely deployed platforms," which includes iOS, Android, Windows, and Roku. Both native and web apps will be accepted.

Any platform shipping 5 million units per year in the US gets an app

TV providers would also be required to open their catalog up to universal searches. That would allow an Apple TV, for instance, to search through a provider's live and on-demand programming right alongside Netflix, letting a user see results for both at once.

This updated plan still accomplishes one major goal of the original proposal: freeing consumers from unnecessary cable box rentals, which typically require a monthly fee on top of cable service. While consumers will still be able to buy and rent cable boxes, the commission's hope here is that consumers will just buy a cheap streaming box and download their cable provider's app instead. Apps will be required on more than just streaming boxes, too — smartphones, tablets, and game consoles are all eligible.

What's more in question is how much this furthers the commission's goal of increasing innovating around TV, which has been painfully stagnant for years. The app model will help to move things forward, as it mandates the inclusion of TV content on other platforms. But the interface largely stays in the cable companies' control; content remains locked inside of apps, so it's questionable how much this'll let companies like Apple, Google, and Roku create interesting new ways of finding and watching TV.

Tech companies get much less control with this proposal

That's a big distinction from the commission's initial plan. When FCC chairman Tom Wheeler initially announced these plans in January, his proposal would have required TV providers to completely open up their content and streams to others' platforms. That would have allowed companies like Apple and Google to create new interfaces for watching TV — they could have even built actual TVs with those features built in.

This version of the plan also offers much less to smaller upstarts. TV providers only have to provide apps once a platform has shipped at least 5 million units in the US in the previous year, which means new streaming boxes will have to reach a large distribution before they qualify to receive apps.

But that old plan received widespread pushback from the cable and TV industry. Cable companies weren't happy about giving up control; not simply of the interface, but also of their ability to place certain channels side by side — something which they often have established deals to do. The industry was also concerned about security, claiming this model would hurt their ability to protect copyrighted work.

Cable providers argued that apps were already accomplishing the FCC's goals

The cable industry wasn't alone in opposing the original proposal. Roku was also on their side, saying that the internet was already driving enough innovation. However other big tech companies, like Google, were broadly in favor of the original plan.

Those opposed to the plan generally favored the app approach that the commission is proposing today. That's in part because it was something they were already moving toward, and in part because it still keeps them in control of their content.

And yet! Who'd have thought that in spite of spending months arguing about apps, Comcast, the biggest TV provider in the US, is pissed about these new rules. In short, it hates them and claims they're illegal, probably because even these lighter regulations are still regulations, after all, and any amount of regulation means more work and competition, which Comcast's DNA is completely opposed to.

A statement from a Comcast communications exec, Sena Fitzmaurice, on the subject is pretty withering: "While we appreciate that Chairman Wheeler has abandoned his discredited proposal to break apart cable and satellite services, his latest tortured approach is equally flawed. He claims that his new proposal builds on the marketplace success of apps, but in reality, it 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." And that's only the first two sentences.

If the plan passes, it'll probably end up in court

The FCC, of course, maintains that it has the power to do all of this. It cites the very same section of the Telecommunications Act that resulted in the creation of the CableCARD. Nonetheless, Comcast is very clearly signaling that it's ready to fight. So, assuming the plan passes, expect to see it in court sometime next year.

In addition to its 5 million units requirement, the FCC also plans to establish a standard license to be agreed to when cable providers place their apps on new set-top boxes. This is meant to streamline app placement and ensure consistent rules around features and privacy. Industry members will be involved in developing the license; while the commission will have a say too, it claims it will serve largely as a "backstop" to ensure nothing goes wrong here. (It cites the failure of the CableCARD for why it needs to remain involved.)

The commission will vote on the rules during a meeting later this month, on September 29th. If they pass, they'll become official several months later. Large TV providers will then have two years to make their apps available; smaller providers will have four years (companies with fewer than 400,000 subscribers will be exempt). So it won't be overnight that cable apps become available, but, assuming the rules pass and stay in place, it sounds like set-top boxes will start getting a lot more useful.

Update September 8th, 4:30PM ET: This story has been updated with comment from Comcast.

Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, which owns The Verge.