Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has proposed a framework aimed at innovating the traditional set-top box. In his proposal, he states that consumers should be able to choose how they want to access the video services they subscribe to from cable, satellite, or through a telecommunications companies.

In short, if this proposal is enacted, you could soon be able to use whatever set-top box device you want to watch your favorite show.

In an outline, Wheeler names three core information streams that have to pass from Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs) — the companies where you get everything from — to hardware and app developers of various set-top boxes like Roku, Apple, and Google:

  • Service discovery: This is information about what programming is available to the consumer such as the channel listing, what’s on-demand, and a guide of what’s on each channel.
  • Entitlements: You must be informed about what each device is allowed to do with the content, such as recording.
  • Content delivery: The video programming must be delivered, of course.

Wheeler hopes that common standards can also be established that will promote interoperability and also remove any barriers to innovation. Specifically he wants companies to have an openness in membership, a balance of interests, due process, an appeals process, and consensus.

Right now, in order for consumers to watch traditional programming like news, sports, and their favorite cable shows, they need to rent a device from their cable or satellite company. However, if you have an Apple TV or Google Chromecast, you’re limited to whatever is streaming, which may suit some people — but instead of paying $10 a month to rent a box from your cable provider, wouldn’t you just like to use a different device that’s more suited to your needs as a consumer?

But this is easier said than done, with obvious hurdles that the FCC will need to address, such as copyright protection, emergency alerts, advertising, misuse, and promoting independent and minority content. As it relates to protecting content, Wheeler said that the FCC “will not interfere with the business relationships between MVPDs and their content providers or between MVPDs and their customers.” Additionally, none of the protections already in place will be affected, and existing content distribution deals, licensing terms, and other conditions will remain unchanged.

Much of the FCC proposal picks up on the CableCARD initiative that came about in response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The federal government included a requirement that instructed cable companies to allow third-party devices to access their networks. Wheeler carries over the CableCARD’s policy on the emergency alerting system (EAS), saying that competitive devices should also transmit these alerts.

In short, Wheeler hopes that by opening up innovation around set-top boxes, consumers will greatly benefit from more choice and lower prices. “Just as consumers shop at retail for a smartphone today, and they can choose to purchase a wireless router instead of leasing one from their provider, consumers will have the same choice to use a competitive device with a third-party app if they choose,” he wrote.

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