Set-top box order pulled from FCC’s September meeting agenda at last minute

FCC headquarters
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PHILADELPHIA – The FCC has decided to delay a vote on a controversial proposal that would force pay-TV operators to make their services available to third-party devices with free multiscreen apps.

FCC Commissioners were set to vote today on the so-called “Set-Top Box Order,” which was an updated version of the “Unlock the Box” NPRM that passed earlier this year. However, facing intense pressure from pay-TV operators, programming companies and members of Congress, the order’s backers – led by FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler – pulled it from the Commission’s September open meeting agenda. 

“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,” said Wheeler, along with fellow Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, in a joint statement. 

“We have made tremendous progress – and we share the goal of creating a more innovative and inexpensive market for these consumer devices,” they added. “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.”

Wheeler submitted his revised proposal to regulate the pay-TV set-top business in early September, incorporating a key desire from the pay-TV industry — to base the new scheme on multiscreen apps. 

However, the updated proposal included a highly controversial plan for the FCC – or a delegated body – to act as an independent standards body for the apps. 

Wheeler said he was open to making further alterations to the proposal, with Rosenworcel telling a Senate subcommittee earlier this month that the revised order “has problems.”

The haggling over such revisions – and securing Rosenworcel’s “yes” vote – reportedly went down to the last minute.

"Rosenworcel in particular is a very technically oriented commissioner," said Harold Feld, senior VP at the consumer group Public Knowledge, to the Washington Post. "They clearly want to do something, but it's also clear that in her case she's not going to agree to a general shape of something and give editorial privileges to work out the details later. She is going to want to make sure the details are resolved."

“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,” said the NCTA, Wheeler’s most vociferous opponent in his set-top regulation quest. 

“Our industry is committed to a future where viewers have the freedom to watch their favorite shows on a wide variety of tablets, streaming consoles, smartphones and other connected devices,” the NCTA added. “We will continue our efforts to innovate in the marketplace to expand consumer choice, promote market innovation, protect the rights of content holders and respect consumer privacy.”

Public Knowledge, which has backed the proposal along with technology companies including Google and TiVo, released this statement: “We are disappointed that the Commission was unable to adopt this item today. While this appears to be a short-term delay, consumers are getting bilked more each day this drags on.

“This issue has been under consideration at the FCC for two years now, and the benefit of further delay is unclear,” Public Knowledge added. “Opponents of unlocking the box will continue to shift from one manufactured concern to another in an attempt to keep consumers renting the controlled, locked-down set-top box, costing consumers billions and holding back innovation and video competition. We will continue to push the FCC to act as soon as possible to end the set-top box ripoff.”

Meanwhile, AT&T and Comcast both supported the decision to delay and give the proposal additional review. "AT&T supports the call for additional review and public comment on the FCC’s modified set-top box proposal. We have always said that this complicated technology mandate is unnecessary given the rapidly expanding applications-based marketplace," the company said in a statement.

Comcast agreed. "It is now critical that the Commission heed the bipartisan calls of dozens of Members of Congress and respected third parties and release its new proposal and associated rules to allow the public to provide comment," it said in a statement. "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.”

Related articles:
Wheeler formally pitches revised app-based set-top proposal, includes integrated search
Fox and CBS ex parte filings hint that the FCC is going to make major compromises to ‘Unlock the Box’
FCC's O’Rielly: New set-top plan ‘exists within a fantasy world of unlimited commission authority’
FCC’s Rosenworcel says new set-top proposal ‘has problems,’ Wheeler said changes will be made