Revised FCC Set-Top Box Proposal Inches Closer To Reality

Image courtesy of geetargeek

Early this year, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler put forth a proposal: how about doing away with those set-top boxes you’re required to rent, for lots of money, in order to watch pay-TV? After all, it’s 2016, surely we can do better? Naturally, the suggestion became an instant political football. But after seven months of working it out, the rumor mill says a compromise is on its way.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the likely draft of the final proposal may not be quite what either side agitated for, but might still represent “a major victory for consumers,” according to some advocates.

Let’s review the back-story quickly:

The commission began considering the proposal back in February. Since then, it’s been the predictably endless back-and-forth.

When public comments closed in April, the folks who had their say mostly fell into two clear camps. One, mostly composed of consumer advocates, small tech and telecom companies, and the White House, was strongly in favor of an overhaul that would make the marketplace competitive and could in theory save consumers millions of dollars.

The other, comprising large incumbent businesses and entertainment industry trade groups — Comcast, Dish Network, Roku, the NCTA, the RIAA, and so on — are, of course, against it. It would disrupt a reliable revenue stream, and so every excuse that can be levied has been tried.

In the meantime, the industry has been floating some app-based proposals. Comcast and Samsung announced an agreement in April that will allow certain Xfinity customers using certain Samsung smart sets to skip the whole “box” thing entirely.

Months later, the NCTA (cable’s big lobbying group) offered the FCC a proposal that, in theory, sounds like it does what the FCC wants — but doesn’t really. Their app-based proposal would keep cable “cable,” even if it came through over your WiFi, and would not offer DVR, pause, or delayed-playback tech without a fee.

Meanwhile, Comcast has been insisting that what the FCC wants from it is physically impossible, while the FCC continues to insist otherwise.

So with months of ugly bickering behind us, what kind of compromise are we likely to see voted on at the month’s end?

It seems the NCTA suggestion — about which Wheeler first said “one page is a press release, not a proposal” — has gained some traction. According to the WSJ, the final proposal will borrow heavily from its app-based suggestions.

However, the proposal does not as yet appear to address the copyright issues media companies raised (i.e. how easy will it be to watch pirated stuff instead of the real deal), nor the consumer rights issues about data sharing or program recording. Media companies also are deeply suspicious of an FCC proposal for licensing apps to device makers, concerned that it would lead to regulators mucking about in their carriage contracts.

John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney from advocacy group Public Knowledge, told the WSJ that from what he’s seen, it’s “a good result for consumers,” even if it’s not “100% of what we wanted.”

The rest, well, is politics. Partisan positions, in a high-profile election year, make every action more complicated for everyone involved, and may make them triangulate their stances differently, the WSJ points out.

The FCC is widely expected to vote on the issue at this month’s open meeting. In order for that to happen, Wheeler’s office basically has until the end of this week (Sep. 9) to circulate the proposal if it’s going to be on the agenda.

FCC’s Wheeler to Intensify Push to Break Cable’s Grip on Set-Top Boxes [Wall Street Journal]

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