Pay TV pitches open, apps-based set-top alternative to FCC: 'Ditch the Box'

After months of complaining about the FCC's "Unlock the Box" proposal, the pay-TV industry has finally made a formal pitch for an alternative. 

A broad coalition of pay-TV operators and programmers have pitched the FCC with an open, apps-based alternative to the agencies set-top proposal which they're calling "Ditch the Box."

The scheme would require major pay-TV operators to enable their services through apps based on open HTML5 standards, allowing customers to access their TV service through a range of third-party devices. 

The proposal comes five months after the FCC proposed its "Unlock the Box" plan, which is intended to enable third-party devices to enter into the pay-TV ecosystem. 

"Advocates for the FCC's 'Unlock the Box' proposal have argued that monthly box rental fees are too high, that open standards are needed to create more competition in the market for video devices, and that these new devices should be allowed to integrate both pay-TV and streaming content in the same search interface," said the Future of TV Coalition, the group of pay-TV operators and programmers coalesced to battle the FCC's NPRM.

"This alternative proposal allows customers to ditch their box altogether, utilizes the open HTML5 standard, and will let devices search for content from both pay -TV apps and other licensed video apps through the device's search menu," Future of TV Coalition added. 

Michael Powell, president and CEO of the National Cable Telecommunications Association — a Future of TV member — was on hand to pitch the plan to FCC commissioners Wednesday, along with executives from AT&T/DirecTV (NYSE: T) and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), among other companies. 

While the presenters included reps from smaller independent programmers including Revolt TV, major conglomerate representation from companies like Disney, Time Warner and Viacom was not present. Dish Network was notably absent, as well. 

According to an ex parte filing detailing the meeting, FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel, Mignon Clyburn and Michael O'Rielly were also in attendance, as was Jessica Almond, legal adviser to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. 

At the NCTA's INTX show last month, Wheeler pointedly called on the cable industry to bring something to the table in response to his NPRM. A previous announcement by Comcast that it is partnering with companies including Samsung and Roku to integrate apps into third-party devices that don't require leased set-tops was rebuked by Wheeler and the FCC, who said the MSO still has a stranglehold on the user experience though its apps.

But an FCC statement released today carried a slightly softer message. 

"Chairman Wheeler is heartened that the industry has adopted the primary goal of our proposal, to promote greater competition and choice for consumers, and agree it is achievable," FCC spokesperson Kim Hart said, responding to FierceCable with a statement. 

"We all agree that third-party access to pay-TV content, integrated search and the protection of copyright, content security, consumer privacy and minority programmers are critical. There is a lot more work to do," the FCC statement added. "We look forward to seeing additional details so we can determine whether their proposal fully meets all of the goals of our proceeding and the statute. We will continue to work with all stakeholders to develop rules that allow innovation to flourish and ensure consumers have real options for accessing the pay-TV programming they purchase"

Future of TV Coalition is billing the plan as a major upgrade to the FCC's "Unlock the Box" proposal, which it says would take years and massive cost to develop and implement. 

"By contrast, the 'Ditch the Box' proposal eliminates the need for costly network changes, uses existing open standards that have been broadly embraced by retail manufacturers and others in the  marketplace, and lets customers ditch rented boxes for good by installing apps on hardware – such as smart TVs or plug-in streaming players – they can purchase and own themselves."

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