Wheeler: AT&T taking set-top debate to 'the extremes'

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler shot back at an AT&T (NYSE: T) blog post he said takes the debate over his new set-top box proposal to "the extremes."

"First of all, nobody is trying to take control of what AT&T distributes as their television signal," he said during an interview with Variety's PopPolitics on SiriusXM. "All we are trying to say is that you need to pass information through to competitive providers."

In a company blog post last week, Stacy Fuller, AT&T VP of federal regulatory affairs, compared Wheeler's proposed revision of FCC set-top rules to pay-TV operators taking over Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) homepage. 

"When you get beyond all the hype, Google and its affiliated proponents of this technology mandate are simply trying to take our competitive service and repackage it as their own, without ever having to negotiate with us or with the content owners with whom we had to negotiate to create our service offering," she said.

"The big kick I get is that AT&T and the cable companies have been putting out statements say, 'This is going to thwart innovation,'" Wheeler said. "And I scratch my head and say, 'My goodness, let's see. When it the last time that competition thwarted innovation rather than spurring innovation?' And you are telling me that a locked down, closed system will have more impetus to be innovative, than a competitive, open system? I think that history shows that it is exactly the opposite of what happens in reality."

Wheeler has proposed new rules that would allow devices made by companies like Google and TiVo to manufacture devices that work in the pay-TV ecosystem. Pay-TV operators have been wary of the proposed mandate, suggesting Google has played a key role in its development and will benefit disproportionately from implementation of the rules. 

"All we are saying is, 'Cable operators, you can go ahead and control your product," Wheeler said. "But have an open platform so that anyone can build a device, and then let's compete on who can offer the better device.' Let's have the cable company say, 'You want to pay me for my interface, because it does all these things nobody else does.' Rather than, 'You must pay me.' We are just trying to get to that basic American concept of competition."

Wheeler also said that the goals of his proposal were mandated in the Telecommunications Act, which just turned 20 years old. Earlier attempts to execute on this mandate, such as the adoption of the CableCard standard, simply weren't technologically advanced enough to achieve the goal of unlocking the pay-TV set-top.

"The difficulty was, at that point in time, the technology wasn't very advanced," he said. "And so you came out with this system called 'cable card,' which is what is in place right now. It really wasn't until 2011 that smart TVs became predominant… All we are saying is 'We are now at a point in time where technology finally makes it possible to do what Congress mandated 20 years ago.'"

For more:
- read this Variety story
- read this AT&T blog post
- read this New York Times commentary

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