Setting up a possible windfall for the cable TV industry, the FCC late Friday announced that it has eliminated a rule that bars cable operators from scrambling digital basic tier programming.
The agency originally put the prohibition into place in 1994 so subscribers with cable-ready TV sets would not have to buy or lease set-top decoder boxes to view basic-tier programming.
But the cable TV industry has been lobbying against the prohibition, arguing that it has made it harder for cable operators to prevent theft of cable's basic-tier packages.
In addition, the cable TV industry said that eliminating the prohibition would enable cable operators to establish service without sending technicians to the homes of subscribers.
Without the rule, millions of cable TV subscribers may eventually have to buy or lease decoders to continue receiving basic-tier programming on at least some of the TV sets in their homes.
But in its order on Friday, the FCC said that cable systems that scramble basic-tier programming will still face curbs. For two years, adversely affected subscribers must be offered free decoders so they can continue watching basic-tier programming on up to two TV sets in their homes.
The FCC ruling also stated that similarly affected cable subscribers receiving Medicaid could get free decoders for two sets in their homes for up to five years.
"Today is a good day for consumers and for innovation in the marketplace," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, pictured above, in a statement. "The commission removes regulatory barriers that prevented cable companies from remotely activating service and forced consumers to wait for the cable guy to show up at their homes."