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Here’s Why You Won’t Be Dropping Your Cable Box Anytime Soon

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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks during a FCC hearing on net neutrality.Photograph by Mandel Ngan — AFP/Getty Images

Efforts to crack the cable TV industry’s $21 billion monopoly over the set-top box market came apart on Thursday.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler had been trying to promote competition for the devices that control channel listings, grant access to pay-per-view movies, and offer other functions. Almost all customers of cable companies like Comcast (CMCSA)and Charter Communications (CHTR) pay a monthly fee to rent a box.

The FCC had considered forcing cable operators to allow consumers to buy set-top boxes from others, but the industry and its allies in Congress fought the plan. A revised plan would have relied on apps to run on competing boxes. The agency was scheduled to consider the revised proposal at a meeting on Thursday, but the topic was pulled from the agenda at the last minute.

“We have made tremendous progress – and we share the goal of creating a more innovative and inexpensive market for these consumer devices,” Wheeler said in a joint statement with the two other Democratic commissioners. “We are still working to resolve the remaining technical and legal issues and we are committed to unlocking the set-top box for consumers across this country.”

With the clock ticking on Obama appointee Wheeler’s run atop the agency, Thursday’s delay means its is unlikely that new set-top box rules will be passed anytime soon.

Under the 1996 Telecommunications Act and FCC rules, cable companies are currently required to allow customers to use competing equipment, but the devices must be compatible with a piece of hardware known as a Cablecard that enforces copyright protections. Beyond Tivo, few competing set top boxes that use Cablecards have caught on. Meanwhile, cable companies have been expanding the functionality of their boxes.

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Wheeler was seeking to simplify the system by allowing competing set-top boxes that would abide by software standards to enforce copyright instead of using the more complicated hardware Cablecard. But cable companies claimed the competing boxes would still facilitate violating copyright rules.

Under a revised proposal, Wheeler wanted cable companies to make available all the shows offered through a set-box via apps that could run on competing devices like an Apple‘s (AAPL) Apple TV or a Roku device. But the cable industry also opposed that plan.