It would allow non-cable companies to make new set-top boxes, customizing search functions, menu designs and other aspects of the user interface that consumers might not currently enjoy from their provider, officials say.
Right now, most people rent their boxes directly from their cable or satellite TV providers, to the tune of $20 billion a year, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Consumers pay, on average, about $20 a month to rent their boxes from cable providers, a congressional probe found last year.
"Ninety-nine percent of pay-TV subscribers are chained to their set-top boxes because cable and satellite operators have locked up the market," according to an agency fact sheet released Wednesday.
The proposal from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would require operators to behave differently in several ways. In general, they'd have to provide much of the information that their own set-top boxes already rely on to other companies. That includes everything related to a cable firm's channel line-up — such as which networks appear on which channels, and what programming can be found there.
Cable providers will also have to relay basic data about privileges and permissions, such as whether a device can record shows for later playback. And, of course, the companies will have to make the actual shows available to third party devices, as well.
This isn't the first time the FCC has tried to crack open the set-top box. But changes in technology are demanding new approaches to the issue, senior FCC officials told reporters Wednesday.
The cable industry's supporters are opposed to this move, lashing out at what it views as government overreach and a threat to consumers. Many of them joined a new group that launched Wednesday called the Future of TV coalition.
"Innovation and competition should drive the creative marketplace, not government mandates that have the potential to undermine and impede the best TV market in the world," the group said in a release.
The FCC's proposal will be voted on at its Feb. 18 meeting. If it's approved, it will open up a proceeding to allow for public feedback before the rules are finalized during a later vote.