The FCC’s Latest Set-Top Box Plan Would Let You Watch All TV With Apps

But if you like your cable box, you’ll be able to keep your cable box.

The FCC’s Latest Set-Top Box Plan Would Let You Watch All TV With Apps
[Photo: Flickr user Paul Keller]

Back in January, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler threw a Molotov cocktail at the cable and satellite TV industry when he proposed a plan to ditch set-top boxes—which cost an average of $231 per year to rent—and instead force pay-TV companies to let customers watch television through apps.


Cable giants like Comcast hated the idea, but that wasn’t even the most controversial part about it. Wheeler also wanted to make pay-TV companies provide all their data streams (scheduling, video, copy protection requirements) to any hardware company that wants to build its own set-top box or any software company, like Google, that wants to make its own apps.

Now, after seven months of gathering public and industry input, Wheeler dropped that latter requirement in a new proposal released today, but it’s not really a complete victory for Big Cable.

Bottom line: You’ll have the choice of keeping your cable box. Or if you prefer, you can trash the box, watch TV through an app, and pocket what you save on device rentals. But you won’t get your TV on an app by some other company, such as Google. Instead, cable companies will have to provide that for you. All of this is contingent on the full FCC voting for the plan on September 29, which it probably will.

Wheeler’s new plan (described in an L.A. Times Op-Ed), requires cable companies to provide customers with apps for “the device of their choosing”—defined as any platform with at least 5 million units sold. That should cover the usual suspects: all Android and iOS mobile devices, Apple and Windows computers, Apple TV, Roku players, and Roku TVs, Google Chromecast, Xbox, PlayStation, and most other smart TVs. Apps would also have to offer all the same services that set-top boxes do, including on-demand programs, DVR, fast forward, rewind, and start over functions.

Wheeler would also require TV providers to make their scheduling info available to any device the app runs on, so you could do one search across cable TV, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, or whatever other apps are on your gadget. Already devices like Roku and Amazon Fire TV let you search across a bunch of apps at once, but they don’t show you what’s on regular TV. Some smart TVs can also search what’s on cable, but they need a jerry-rigged connection to a cable box to tune in to the channels.

The biggest cable and satellite TV companies would have to provide apps for all major devices within two years, midsize cable companies would have four years, and the smallest of them would be exempt.


Wheeler’s proposal doesn’t mean you could watch anywhere you can get a Wi-Fi or cell signal, though. Content licensing deals are still determined by geography, and apps would likely only work in your home. “That’s exactly how the apps behave today,” said a FCC rep, referring to some apps that cable companies already provide. “An so we would expect it to be the same going forward.” (All three FCC employees on the press call spoke “on background,” and asked not to be named.)

This is by no means a done deal, however. Wheeler was appointed by President Obama, who’s about to leave office. An election is coming. The Republican-controlled Congress hasn’t been a fan of new FCC regulations, and the cable companies are bound to put up a fight. “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,” said Comcast in an email that came out right after the new plan was announced.

About the author

Sean Captain is a technology journalist and editor. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.