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The White House wants to let Google and Apple build your cable TV box

Barack Obama endorses a plan the cable guys hate.

Vjeran Pavic
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

President Obama wants to set your pay TV box free.

The White House has officially endorsed a Federal Communications Commission plan to let anyone build and sell pay TV boxes — hardware that up until now has been controlled by pay TV providers.

The Obama administration made the announcement via a blog post this morning, where it compared current set-top boxes to clunky phones that companies like AT&T used to require their customers to rent.

A new proposal from the FCC is supposed to change that, by allowing anyone — Google, Apple or whomever — to build their own boxes, which customers could buy, and pay TV companies like Comcast* would have to support.

“Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years to lease a set of behind-the-times boxes, American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget,” Obama economic advisers Jeff Zients and Jason Furman wrote.

The endorsement is a symbolic one, since FCC chair Tom Wheeler is an Obama appointee and wouldn’t have pushed the proposal forward earlier this year without a prior go-ahead from Obama. And while the FCC is technically reviewing arguments for and against the idea, it seems certain to officially sign off on it soon.

And that move, in turn, will kick off a court battle with Comcast and the rest of the pay TV business, which hate the idea and will almost certainly sue to prevent it from moving forward — just as Verizon and other telcos have sued to roll back new net neutrality rules that the FCC announced, with Obama’s backing, last year.

(Update: Here’s the warm-up for that suit – the cable industry’s trade group calls the plan “unlawful“.)

What’s still unclear is whether the average consumer will actually care who makes their cable box.

Tech optimists think the notion of a Silicon Valley-designed box, which could theoretically place channels like CBS and ABC side by side with YouTube and other digital video services, would revolutionize TV. But the FCC rules won’t have any impact on the structure of the TV business, where pay TV providers and pay TV networks bundle together big packages of TV channels and require consumers to pay for all of them.

Right now the pay TV business is playing around with tweaking that model on its own, by trialing things like “skinny bundles” of TV channels. There’s an open debate about whether those are selling or not: Comcast says it doesn’t see many people signing up for them; ESPN says it has lost subscribers because people are signing up for skinny bundles that don’t include the sports network.

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.

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