For weeks, cable providers such as Comcast have been resisting a federal proposal that would force them to make their channels available to anybody who wanted to design new user interfaces for them. Instead of browsing the channel lineup through cable-provided menus and devices, consumers should have access to a greater variety of choices, argue the regulators who proposed the move.
Now the industry has come out with a counterproposal that it hopes will keep away the toughest of the regulations proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. In meetings with top agency officials this week, representatives from Comcast, AT&T and a slew of industry organizations offered a compromise. The deal would allow consumers to get rid of their set-top boxes altogether, saving the roughly $230 a year on average that households pay for the box.
Through an app designed by your cable company, you would be able to search and view all kinds of content not limited to your regular cable lineup; instead, you would also be able to access Netflix-style streaming video content right from the same app. Consumer advocates say this form of integrated search that unifies cable and streaming programming benefits consumers.
The app would be designed using open HTML5 standards, meaning that start-ups and businesses that sell smart TVs or other hardware could begin supporting the app without having to jump through hoops trying to meld with proprietary cable technology. But the user interface would have the same look and feel of the cable providers' own channel lineups and menus.
"This approach would provide significant benefits to consumers," the industry officials argued to three of the FCC's commissioners this week in a regulatory filing shown to The Washington Post.
The cable industry's proposal also includes intellectual property safeguards built in to prevent piracy — one of the primary objections the industry had to the FCC's proposed rules. Every cable and satellite company with over 1 million subscribers would have to offer such an app, if the idea is approved.
Consumer and other industry groups have not attacked the proposal outright, a sign that it may lead to an effective compromise. The FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said through a spokesperson Thursday that he was "heartened that the industry has adopted the primary goal of our proposal, to promote greater competition and choice for consumers."
There's still a lot more work ahead. Consumer groups say that to see the cable industry agree with them on principles — such as being able to watch without a cable box and to browse streaming and regular cable content at the same time — is a good first step. But they noted that the proposal doesn't support features such as home recording or the "true" competition in user interface design that would emerge if companies ranging from Amazon to Google could design their own ways of displaying cable content directly.
"We look forward to continuing to discuss these issues with the FCC and all other interested parties," said the advocacy group Public Knowledge.