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FCC adopts 'Unlock the Box' proposal to open set-top box competition

The Federal Communications Commission will force cable providers to ensure interoperability for third-party set-top boxes, paving the way for companies like Apple to integrate linear television programming into their offerings.

The commission was predictably split on the issue, which cable and satellite operators vehemently opposed. Cable companies stand to lose millions of dollars in rental fees and — perhaps more importantly — direct control over their relationships with customers.

Consumers would still be forced to pay a subscription fee for access, but would otherwise never have to interact with their cable provider. A set-top box purchase from Apple or Google could serve as the front end, making those companies into de facto content gatekeepers.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler believes this will foster competition to create the best experience.

"[Cable companies] and competitors should be able to differentiate themselves and compete based on the experience they offer users, including the quality of the user interface and additional features like suggested content, integration with home entertainment systems, caller ID and future innovations," Wheeler's proposal reads.

Under the plan, cable companies will be required to give set-top box manufacturers access to program listings, content, and information about how the programming can be treated — for example, whether a specific show can be recorded. It does not grant third parties any rights with regard to content licensing.