Many of the objections that the cable industry and Hollywood have raised to the FCC’s effort to open the set top box market are little more than “slogans” and “baloney,” Chairman Tom Wheeler said today in a vigorous defense of his agency’s rulemaking proceeding.
Critics say that independent manufacturers might violate programmers’ copyrights, misuse consumer data, or make shows easier to pirate. What’s more, they say that a rule governing boxes is archaic because cable operators are developing software-based ways to protect programming that don’t require extra hardware.
Wheeler calls many of these objections “imaginary horribles.”
For example, the copyright protections in the FCC proposal were “lifted” from the current rules operators use with their devices build around a smartcard known as a CableCard.
Even so, “it’s the end of the world because copyright is somehow being hurt,” Wheeler says. “I’m ready to solve the problem. We don’t want copyright to be threatened. So let’s talk about how we solve those” issues.
The status quo doesn’t work because “90% of consumers don’t have a choice, and the [Telecommunications Act of 1996] says there has to be a choice. That’s the issue.”
Comcast recently announced a plan to offer its TV service via an app on a Roku box. That “demonstrated that what we’re talking about is entirely feasible.” If they make it open, so others could also use its app, “nothing changes their business model. They’re still controlling the tiers, the prices, the ability to record, what I get — everything.”
But the FCC chief also wants to clear the way for devices that would enable consumers to switch back and forth between their pay TV channels and internet delivered ones such as Netflix.
“They’re all the same now. Why aren’t we harnessing IP to open things up to the benefit of consumers and do it in a way that doesn’t change the economics of cable video delivery?”
Critics also say that independent box makers might repackage content in ways that interfere with deals operators make with programmers. For example, an outsider might sell its own ads to replace ones that operators air, or interfere with contract terms governing everything from channel placement to the size of a logo on screen.
Wheeler counters that the FCC is “not giving an opportunity to someone else to repackage the content in a different way” — and repeated his plea for cable representatives to discuss solutions.
Existing laws restrict how cable companies can use the data from their boxes about people’s viewing patterns. Wheeler wants the same restrictions to apply to devices or apps from independent manufacturers such as Google or Amazon.
To make that happen, the FCC (which regulates networks) had to work with the FTC (which regulates consumer services). The FCC would only authorize third party manufacturers that agreed to the privacy restrictions — and did so publicly.
That way “the FTC could move against the company if they have misled the public.”
On another front, Wheeler declined to say whether he might try to stay on after the presidential election.
The FCC chairman said he got into trouble months ago when someone asked him whether he’d stay on if the next president asked him to do so.
“I said, ‘She hasn’t asked me.'”
Analyst Craig Moffett, who was conducting the interview, didn’t miss a beat: “Ivanka [Trump], you mean?”