FCC’s Set-Top Box Plan Draws Array of Reactions

An FCC plan to replace the set-top box provided by cable operators with an app-based approach was seen as a great move in some corners, but elsewhere, criticism arose over the new policy.

The Federal Communications Commission is dropping its controversial set-top box plan. But when it comes to the app strategy that the FCC is adopting instead, the devil’s in the details for some trade groups.

The newest attempt to replace the CableCARD device—which was intended to provide consumer choice but instead fell into disuse, allowing provider-distributed set-top boxes to take over—was announced last week by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

“Now, I am proposing rules that would end the set-top-box stranglehold. If adopted, consumers will no longer have to rent a set-top box, month after month,” Wheeler wrote. “Instead, pay-TV providers will be required to provide apps—free of charge—that consumers can download to the device of their choosing to access all the programming and features they already paid for.”

The approach would solve some lingering problems for pay-TV services, which have struggled to account for the rise of smart televisions and streaming devices such as the Apple TV, Roku, and Xbox One. It would also make the devices work more efficiently, allowing for an integrated search among a number of different apps.

“These rules will open the door for innovation, spurring new apps and devices, giving consumers even more choice and user control,” Wheeler wrote.

An Industry IDEA

The FCC’s new proposal was based on an earlier cable-industry pitch. That plan was meant to replace a prior FCC proposal that would have allowed third-party companies like Google to produce their own set-top boxes, as an alternative to the controversial practice of mandatory set-top box rentals from cable companies.

However, the app approach differs in a few key ways, according to Ars Technica. For one thing, the FCC would require apps to include recording functionality, a feature that was absent from the cable industry’s plan. Additionally, the FCC would require cable companies to design apps for all major platforms, no matter the underlying technology. Yes, that would include the Roku, but it would also include PCs, Macs, and mobile platforms.

Groups Take Sides

Reactions to the FCC’s plans were mixed.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association suggested that the new proposal  went too far because it would create a new centralized licensing body that would approve the cable industry’s apps.

“This proposal would far exceed the commission’s legal authority and improperly insert the government into private contract negotiations between pay-TV distributors, content creators, and device manufacturers,” the association stated last week.

Meanwhile, the American Cable Association (ACA) argued that its members (who are mostly small cable operators) would be unduly burdened by any changes to set-top-box rules—particularly because they would require programming to be distributed using internet protocol (IP).

“If the FCC goes ahead with rules that force smaller providers to go all-IP, it would eliminate a wireline video service provider in many rural areas throughout the country, as well as inhibit investments in new, higher-performance broadband infrastructure,” ACA President and CEO Matthew Polka said in a preemptive August news release.

On the other hand, INCOMPAS, the trade body whose members would likely have produced set-top boxes under the FCC’s prior plan, cheered the new proposal.

“The FCC has made the critical key choice for an open, not closed future,” INCOMPAS CEO Chip Pickering said in a news release. “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.”

The Senate Commerce Committee will hear testimony from the FCC on the set-top-box issue later this week, and the commissioners will vote on the proposal September 29.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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