The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The government’s top TV regulator just announced its plan to free you from your cable box

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Millions of Americans fork over, on average, more than $230 a year to rent set-top boxes from cable and other pay television providers, and the government's top television regulator revealed its final proposal Thursday to loosen the cable industry's tight grip on those devices.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that the proposal would require major cable and satellite operators to develop free apps that customers could use to access the companies' content through alternative devices such as Apple TV or Amazon's Fire TV. ( founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

"We were motivated by the desire to give consumers relief, but we were also mandated to take action by Congress and the law, which says that consumers should be able to choose their preferred device to access pay-TV programming," wrote Wheeler in a Los Angeles Times op-ed Thursday.

Under the terms of the plan, pay television providers such as Comcast and Verizon would also have to provide a way that allowed consumers to search for the content that they want, all in one place. In other words, the search results could include the broadcast stations and streaming services that offer the content. Some smaller companies will be exempt, but the largest corporations, which currently serve 95 percent of pay-TV subscribers, will have two years to comply, according to an agency fact sheet.

The proposal is also calling for a commission that would come up with a standard license for device makers that want to offer the apps. That body would be made up of representatives from the content and pay television industries and would craft general rules for things like protecting the privacy of viewers. But the FCC would have oversight of that licensing commission under Wheeler's proposal, "to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices," according to the agency.

Earlier in the year Wheeler had initially proposed a more radical approach, suggesting that the government require cable and satellite providers to make their channels available to anyone who wants to make a new user interface for it. The cable industry balked at the idea, later countering with an app-based approach similar to the one in Thursday's proposal.

But that doesn't mean that the pay-TV industry is necessarily on board with the new proposal. In comments filed with the agency earlier this week, a number of major cable companies already pushed back against the proposed centralized licensing system, calling it "unnecessary and unworkable."

Industry group Future of TV Coalition also criticized FCC plan's licensing approach in a post released Thursday on Medium shortly before the proposal was unveiled, arguing that it is "an overly complex Rube Goldberg approach to app licensing that will only hurt consumers by creating barriers to innovation and delaying the transition to apps and new set top box alternatives that is already underway."

However, consumer advocates praised the proposal.

"It would save consumers billions," said John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge.

The plan will be up for a vote at the FCC's Sept. 29 public meeting.