Comcast subscribers will soon be able to access the Netflix video streaming service directly through their set-top boxes as a result of an agreement signed by the companies this week.  Announced Tuesday, the deal encompasses the integration of the Netflix app into next-generation X1 cable set-top boxes offered by Comcast, the nation’s top cable service provider.  As of May, approximately 35% of Comcast customers received their programming through the X1 box.  The company hopes to boost that figure to 50% by year’s end.  While terms of the deal were not disclosed, officials of Netflix and Comcast indicated in a press release that the agreement will provide “seamless access to the great content offered by both companies.”  Company officials further stipulated that “we have much work to do before the service will be available to consumers later this year,” adding:  “we’ll provide more details at that time.”

Tuesday’s pact is also the first to be struck by Netflix with a top nationwide cable network operator, although Netflix has completed similar deals in the past with regional cable operators that include Suddenlink Communications, Atlantic Broadband and Grande Communications Networks. The agreement also comes as the FCC continues deliberations in its “unlock the box” rulemaking proceeding, which seeks to spur competition in the multichannel video program distributor (MVPD) device market by enabling third parties to access content and programming that is locked into cable set-top boxes by MVPDs and integrate that content into their own navigation devices.  In a development that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler lauded as “absolutely terrific,” a coalition of MVPDs led by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association presented an alternative plan to the FCC last month that envisions the elimination of set-top boxes altogether in favor of an industry commitment to “develop and deploy video ‘apps’ that all large MVPDs would build to open HTML.5 web standards.”

Although other major players in the MVPD industry declined comment, advocates of the FCC’s set-top box plan (though pleased with the Netflix-Comcast agreement) seized upon the deal to press for FCC action.  As Public Knowledge senior staff attorney John Bergmayer remarked that, “in a competitive market, consumers shouldn’t have to look to special deals . . . just to access video programming from multiple sources all in one place,” a spokesman for the Consumer Video Choice Coalition declared it is “time for the FCC to . . . give consumers power to watch, organize and discover the content they love on the device they choose.”