FCC Delays Vote On Set-Top Box Proposal

Image courtesy of geetargeek

After much hullaballoo and a number of eleventh-hour political plays, the FCC has scrapped its plan to vote today on a proposal that would upend the cable set-top box marketplace.

The potential rule on which the FCC was scheduled to vote this morning proposed to require pay-TV companies to create free, full-function apps that consumers would be able to use in place of traditional set-top boxes. Not only would that free up consumer choice, the logic goes, but also it could save consumers up to $20 billion annually in those mandatory monthly rental fees subscribers pay.

In D.C. speak, punting that vote down the line is removing an order from the open meeting agenda and sending it to circulation. When confirming that this item had been removed from the agenda, the FCC issued a joint statement from chairman Tom Wheeler and commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, saying:

“It’s time for consumers to say goodbye to costly set-top boxes. It’s time for more ways to watch and more lower-cost options. That’s why we have been working to update our policies under Section 629 of the Communications Act in order to foster a competitive market for these devices. We have made tremendous progress – and we share the goal of creating a more innovative and inexpensive market for these consumer devices. We are still working to resolve the remaining technical and legal issues and we are committed to unlocking the set-top box for consumers across this country.”

Translating that out of bureaucratese, it seems that the item was struck from the agenda because the commissioners hadn’t actually come to an agreement on the details of it yet.

That’s not entirely surprising; viewers have known for weeks that there’s been dissent about this one inside the ranks at the FCC. Although many high-profile items have passed on a 3-2 party-line vote in recent years, there was some doubt in D.C. that Wheeler could reach the needed 3 votes on his proposal — commissioner Rosenworcel had voiced strong concerns about the licensing requirements in the rule.

After the FCC meeting concluded without the set-top box agenda item on it, Wheeler told press, “it was simply a matter of running out of time” while commissioners hashed out edits.

The proposal remains procedurally active, so to speak. FCC commissioners can continue discussing it amongst themselves and tweaking what needs to be tweaked before scheduling a new vote at a later Open Meeting. However, the FCC has not said when a rescheduled vote might take place.

Naturally, the key players on both sides of the issue had strong thoughts about the delay.

The NCTA — big cable’s biggest lobbying group, recently rebranded as The Internet & Television Association — was of course pleased to hear of the delay, becuase they hate the proposed rule.

“We are pleased that the FCC has chosen to delay consideration of its set-top box item, and hope that additional time will lead to meaningful public review and comment on any newly-crafted proposal under consideration,” the NCTA said. “Our industry is committed to a future where viewers have the freedom to watch their favorite shows on a wide variety of … connected devices. We will continue our effots to innovate in the marketplace to expand consumer choice, promote market innovation, protect the rigths of content holders, and respect consumer privacy.”

Comcast, the first and loudest company to cry foul over the propsal, was also naturally thrilled to see it delayed.

Company executive and chief mouthpiece David L. Cohen said in a statement that the FCC made the right choice calling off the vote, adding, “This is an extremely complicated and technical item that should not be adopted without the opportunity for expert and public input.”

He continued that the current proposal “does not solve the copyright, privacy, innovation and other significant concerns that were implicated in his discredited original proposal – and suffers from the same legal infirmities. We share the goal of providing consumers more options to access their video services without the need for a set-top box as we are proving through our Xfinity TV Partner Program. But heavy-handed government regulation, based on questionable legal authority in a fast-moving marketplace will stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks, and delay consumer choice.”

INCOMPAS, a trade group representing a whole big pile of internet, wireless, and telecom companies, has been in favor of the rule. INCOMPAS CEO Chip Pickering said in his statement, “Competition is the law, and the FCC has an obligation to continue working toward solutions that bring real choice, innovation and lower prices to consumers. The members of the commission are smart, well intentioned, and we believe they will find common ground that will open the market and promote innovation. For competition to rise, the set-top box monopoly must fall, and we look forward to working with all members of the FCC toward this shared goal.”

Consumer advocates were also, predictably, disappointed. “Unlocking the box is a chance to curb cable’s gatekeeping power and confront the lack of competition that has allowed companies to rip people off for far too long,” Free Press policy director Matt Wood said in a statement. “The last thing we need are watered-down compromises or further delays to efforts to lower people’s monthly cable bills and enable independent content creators to find larger audiences. But now that the vote has been delayed, the FCC should focus on strengthening this proposal — and that means standing up to an industry that will never stop trying to kill competition and keep prices high.”