Comcast’s X1 TV system and apps.Comcast
reader comments 99
Share this story
The Democratic plan to save cable TV customers money on set-top box rental fees no longer has any real hope of passage since the Federal Communications Commission switched to Republican control.
But just in case, GOP lawmakers have asked new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to close the docket on the proceeding and make its death official.
“We are writing to ask that you close the docket on the set-top box proceeding… and signal clearly to consumers, content producers, consumer electronics manufacturers, and video programming distributors that the Commission’s consideration of the set-top box proposal is at an end,” House Republicans wrote to Pai today.
Nineteen Republican representatives signed the letter, led by Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), the chair and vice chair of the Commerce Committee; and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), the chair and vice chair of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, kicked off the set-top box effort more than a year ago with the hopes of saving customers money on cable box rentals.
The original plan would have required pay-TV providers to make video programming available to the makers of third-party devices and software without the need for a CableCard.
In turn, Wheeler hoped app and device makers would offer alternatives to the set-top boxes, which require costly monthly fees.
Comcast and other cable companies lobbied heavily against the plan and pushed an alternative proposal that would require cable companies to make their own video applications for third-party set-top boxes.
Wheeler ditched his original plan and accepted the basic outline of the cable industry proposal with some changes: Wheeler wanted the cable company apps to include the same recording functionality provided in rented set-top boxes, and he wanted the industry to use a standard license so that device makers wouldn’t have to comply with different licensing terms for each pay-TV operator. Because of these changes, the cable industry (along with programmers, Republican lawmakers, and Republican FCC commissioners) continued opposing the plan.
If the FCC had passed the modified cable industry plan, consumers would have been guaranteed cable company video apps on streaming boxes like the Apple TV and Roku, or anything that runs iOS, Windows, or Android.
But despite having a 3-2 Democratic majority, Wheeler wasn’t able to get enough votes at the commission because Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel withheld support. When Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, that was the death knell for the set-top box plan because it ensured the FCC would switch to a Republican majority.
The fact that the set-top box proceeding is technically still open is considered a problem by House Republicans. “Without a clear indication that the Commission rejects this current proposal, content creators will be hesitant to invest in high-quality video programs,” they wrote to Pai.
Additionally, “video programming distributors will not know whether their contracts will violate FCC policy.”
Pay-TV providers should also be given “a clear sign that they can bring technological advances to set-top boxes and video delivery without fear that the Commission [will] overturn them by regulation,” the lawmakers wrote.
The potential of set-top box regulation “has cast a shadow over investment and innovation in traditional video programming delivery,” they claimed.
Consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge today urged Pai to “end [the] cable box ripoff,” pointing out that Section 629 of the Communications Act “directs the FCC to ensure that consumers can choose from a competitive market for ‘unaffiliated’ devices that can access their complete cable TV or other pay-TV subscriptions.” Comcast and other pay-TV companies do offer video streaming apps, but deployment is uneven across cable companies and devices. Congressional Democrats have also fought for set-top box reform.
Pai, an ex-Verizon lawyer, hasn’t announced a decision, but it doesn’t seem likely he’ll approve anything remotely similar to Wheeler’s plan. He voted against the original plan, and in the ensuing months Pai urged FCC leadership “to walk away from its deeply flawed set-top box scheme.” The FCC’s other Republican commissioner, Michael O’Rielly, also opposes the revised plan that Wheeler based on the cable industry’s apps proposal.
Pai has said that the FCC should focus on eliminating traditional set-top boxes by encouraging cable providers to deploy more video applications that can replace the devices, but it hasn’t supported requiring the cable companies to so.
In general, he has pledged to eliminate regulations for communications companies rather than add new ones.
Comcast’s X1 TV system and apps.Comcast