The cable industry got a reprieve today when the Federal Communications Commission delayed a vote on a proposal that would have enabled consumers to replace expensive set-top boxes with free apps.
The FCC announced its decision to delay the vote this morning, minutes before its monthly meeting was set to begin.
The agency's three Democratic commissioners stated that they are "committed to unlocking the set-top box," but are still trying to resolve "technical and legal issues.
The FCC's decision to postpone the vote comes after months of controversy surrounding its efforts to craft rules enabling consumers to shed their set-top boxes. Currently, most cable subscribers rent set-top boxes from their providers, at an average cost of $231 a year. Many people who also watch video from Netflix or other Web services use streaming devices like Rokus or Amazon Fire TVs, while people who watch TV shows on tablets or smartphones often do so via apps.
Earlier this year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed that cable and satellite providers should make pay-TV programs available to outside companies that could then manufacture their own navigation devices.
The White House supported the proposal, as did consumer advocates. But the cable industry successfully lobbied against the plan.
Earlier this month, Wheeler issued a revised proposal that would have required cable providers to make their programs available via apps. That plan included controversial provisions for licensing. The details were never fully disclosed to the public, but the FCC said in a fact sheet that the rules will require "a standard license governing the process for placing an app on a device or platform."
"The license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers," the agency stated when it announced the plan for mandatory apps. "The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices."
Opponents to the apps plan, including Comcast, AT&T and the Motion Picture Association of America, argued that any type of mandatory license would be illegal.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel -- a critical swing vote on the FCC -- recently told a Senate panel that she shared some concerns about the proposal's licensing provisions.
Consumer advocates like New America's Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge said Thursday that they were disappointed by the FCC's delay.
"Opponents of unlocking the box will continue to shift from one manufactured concern to another in an attempt to keep consumers renting the controlled, locked-down set-top box, costing consumers billions and holding back innovation and video competition," John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge said Thursday in a statement.
Cable providers, not surprisingly, cheered the news. NCTA -- The Internet & Television Association -- said in a statement that it hopes "that additional time will lead to meaningful public review and comment on any newly-crafted proposal under consideration."
At this point, it's unclear whether the FCC will be able to move forward with any effort to revise set-top-box rules before the next election.