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Comcast unveils plan to ditch the cable box; FCC hints it's not good enough

The cable service is trying to get ahead of the FCC's proposed tougher set-top box rules with a plan to get its Xfinity TV services on Samsung smart TVs and Roku boxes.

Expect a full-service Comcast Xfinity app to join Roku's lineup by the end of 2016.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sometimes, you almost want to feel sorry for cable companies. Customers hate them. The cord-cutting trend seems to be picking up momentum. And the government is beginning to cast its gaze on them, too.

Last week, President Obama added his support to the Federal Communications Commission's recent edict calling for standardized cable-box compatibility. If that moves to the point of actual regulation, it could mean true cable-ready TVs or TiVo-like boxes that work seamlessly with any cable system -- instead of having to rent a proprietary box from the cable guy in perpetuity. And devices would be able to access rival Web-based content providers like Netflix, too. There'd be no more toggling to that secondary HDMI input.

Enter Comcast. The nation's largest cable provider said Wednesday that it is offering its Xfinity suite of cable TV offerings -- live TV, on-demand, channel listings and even cloud-based DVR services -- to third-party partners. Two of the industry's biggest names are first on the docket: Samsung smart TVs and Roku streaming devices. Apps for both are expected "later this year," Comcast said. Xfinity apps for mobile devices based on Android and iOS software have long been available.

Built-in apps instead of clunky old cable boxes? Indeed, Comcast rival (and one-time merger target) Time Warner Cable already has a similar app on Roku and mobile platforms for its customers. But apparently, this Comcast olive branch isn't quite good enough for the FCC.

"While we do not know all of the details of this announcement, it appears to offer only a proprietary, Comcast-controlled user interface and seems to allow only Comcast content on different devices, rather than allowing those devices to integrate or search across Comcast content as well as other content consumers subscribe to," an FCC representative said in an emailed statement.

Ouch. It sounds like the FCC is raising the bar and pushing Comcast and its cable guy kin into the role of "just another content provider" -- exactly where they don't want to be.

In the meantime, though, another option for Comcast consumers who want to ditch their boxes sounds great to us.