We’ve known for a while that over-the-top Internet streaming will be the future of television and now a new potential rule change from the Federal Communications Commission could make that future closer than ever before.

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FCC chairman Tom Wheeler on Tuesday proposed a new rule-making process in which the FCC would consider revising its rules to ensure that over-the-top Internet streaming services are given the same treatment as cable companies and satellite television companies. This means that broadcasters would be barred from stopping online video providers from carrying their content and that online video providers would be empowered to negotiate fair licensing deals with content providers.

“In 1992 Congress realized that the then-nascent satellite industry would have a hard time competing because much cable programming was owned by cable companies who frequently kept it from competitors,” Wheeler writes. “Congress mandated access to cable channels for satellite services, and competition flourished.  Today I am proposing to extend the same concept to the providers of linear, Internet-based services; to encourage new video alternatives by opening up access to content previously locked on cable channels.”

If Wheeler’s proposal is approved, this could pave the way for tech companies that have clear ambitions in television — such as Apple, Amazon and Google — to effectively compete with cable and satellite TV providers by being classified as multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).

Or as Wheeler writes, the proposed rule changes would “give MVPDs that use the Internet (or any other method of transmission) the same access to programming owned by cable operators and the same ability to negotiate to carry broadcast TV stations that Congress gave to satellite systems in order to ensure competitive video markets.”

It goes without saying that this would be a sea change for the American TV landscape and it will likely be bitterly fought by pay TV providers that for years have been insulated from competition. At the same time, though, it looks like a very promising proposal that could finally bring TV into the 21st century.

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