FCC Chairman Shifts To App-Based Approach For Set-Top Box Competition

Associated Press

Updated with responses from MPAA and others: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has changed his stance somewhat in his effort to break cable and satellite companies’ control over set-top boxes.

He now wants pay TV distributors to offer subscribers free, FCC-approved apps that they could download to the device of their choice to watch programming. This is what he’ll propose to fellow commissioners in a rule-making proceeding.

That’s a shift from his previous plan that would have made it possible for independent manufacturers to change the order of channels offered.

Wheeler’s proposal would still require pay TV providers to provide information that would enable owners of rival devices to search for shows across services such as Netflix and Amazon, not just on conventional cable channels.

Putting online services “on the same platform as your pay TV providers” will help to “open the door for innovation, spurring new apps and devices, giving consumers even more choice and user control,” Wheeler says in an op-ed posted today in the Los Angeles Times.

The FCC says that 99% of subscribers pay an average of $231 a year to lease the boxes, even well after they’ve covered the cost of the device.

The FCC wants to approve apps, through a licensing board, to avoid the kinds of problems consumers faced with a CableCards, a previous effort to empower independent manufacturers to offer rival set top boxes. Cable companies frequently failed to support them, or insisted that customers install a tuning adapter.

Providers’ apps would have to work on what the agency deems as widely deployed platforms, which would include Roku, Apple iOS, Windows and Android. The largest operators, serving 95% of all subscribers, would have two years to comply.

Congress ordered the FCC in several laws to find a way to give subscribers an alternative to the operator-provided boxes that unencrypt transmissions. For example a 2014 law governing satellite services told regulators to come up with “a not unduly burdensome, uniform, and technology- and platform neutral software-based downloadable security system” to provide competition.

But distributors and the MPAA have vigorously opposed Wheeler’s effort to comply with the mandate.

MPAA CEO Chris Dodd calls Wheeler’s plan “a compulsory copyright license that the FCC does not have authority to grant.” Regulators “must not encroach upon copyright holders’ discretion in how they exercise or license the exclusive rights Congress granted them” in copyright laws.

Comcast describes Wheeler’s proposal as “tortured,” saying that it would “stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing an overly complicated government licensing regime and heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space.”

The company adds that the plan exceeds the FCC’s authority and would create “problems with privacy, copyright protection, content security, and innovation. Heavy-handed government technology mandates have a long history of failure. The Chairman’s approach would likely meet the same fate, while causing real damage to the thriving apps marketplace and real harm to consumers.”

AT&T says the new proposal should be “discarded” because it “raises many of the same copyright and privacy concerns as the original Google Fiber-backed proposal pitched last January.”

John Bergmayer, Senior Counsel of activist group Public Knowledge, says Wheeler’s proposal “addresses the legitimate concerns raised by these parties while preserving the benefits to the public, and fulfilling the Congressional directive that requires the FCC to ensure that viewers do not need to rent set-top boxes from their providers.”

Chip Pickering of tech trade group Incompas also lauded Wheeler for “standing up for consumers who want lower prices, more choice, and the freedom to discover new and exciting content streaming online….By presenting a balanced approach, which takes input from all sides of the debate, the FCC has come down on the side of the consumer, and the innovators of the future.”

And Consumers Union gave the proposal its seal of approval saying it could “save American families hundreds of dollars a year in device fees. This proposal is an important step in giving consumers new, innovative choices in a market that’s had limited — if any — competition for years.”

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2016/09/fcc-chairman-tom-wheeler-shifts-app-based-approach-set-top-box-competition-1201815493/