The Federal Communications Commission wants to remake what it calls the "locked up" cable set-top box market, giving consumers more choices and boosting access to online video.

Under the proposed rule change, cable and satellite companies would have to support set-top boxes from other companies instead of insisting that customers rent the boxes they provide. 

Consumer Reports, and its advocacy arm, Consumers Union, support the FCC initiative. "With the ever-increasing price of cable and all of the advances in technology, why should consumers have to keep renting a set-top box?," says Marta L. Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports. "This move by the FCC would help bring some competition and innovation to a market that’s in serious need of reform."

Under the new proposal, she says, consumers could get better choices and save money.

"We’re very pleased that the Commission is moving forward on a rulemaking," adds Tellado, "and we look forward to continuing to work with them to push for solutions that put consumers first.”

There are few options beyond TiVo for consumers who typically pay a sizeable monthly fee to rent set-top boxes from a TV service provider. Noting that the average monthly charge for each box is $7.43—about $90 a year—the FCC said consumers will likely save money by buying a box from a competitor. In addition, they can shop for a model with the software of their choosing. Many homes have more than one box and last summer two senators estimated the average household spent over $230 a year on cable-box rental fees.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler—who is championing the new rules—wants next-generation set-top boxes to include streaming video as well as the usual pay TV programming. The proposal, which must still be approved by three FCC commissioners, also calls for the boxes to provide channel listings and on-demand lineups, plus information about what the box is allowed to do with content (i.e. recording features).

The FCC believes the new rules will also provide consumers with greater flexibility—you won't be forced to purchase a new box to continue receiving services, for example—and greater innovation, since pay TV and streaming services will be integrated into a single unit.

This move by the commission comes after a ban on integrated set-top boxes—which used security measures to essentially make the boxes themselves proprietary—expired last month. The FCC's proposed guidelines don't require one specific type of security, but mandate that cable and satellite companies use a system that can be openly licensed "on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms." 

Update: The FCC voted 3-2 on Feb. 18 to move forward on this proposal to promote competition in the TV set-top box market. This means the Commission will soon begin to collect public comments and start developing formal rules, which will likely take several months. A final set of rules would still need to be approved by the FCC. Following the vote on this initial proposal, Consumers Union said: “It’s time to untether the consumer from that clunky, old box. This vote is an important step toward tearing down barriers that have limited competition and innovation in this market."