D.C. Weighs In On Obama Support For Unlocking Set-Top Data

READ MORE: Complete coverage of FCC chairman Wheeler's set-top plan.

The White House's call for the FCC to unlock set-top boxes along the lines of chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal drew immediate but mixed responses Friday following a White House blog suggesting the set-top proposal was the "mascot" for an Executive Order-backed initiative to promote competition across all sectors.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell, himself a former FCC chair, said the White House announcement may be good politics. "We are disappointed that White House political advisers are choosing to inject politics and inflammatory rhetoric into a regulatory proceeding by what is supposed to be an independent agency. Consumers and regulated companies have the right to expect decisions affecting their businesses are made based on sound analysis of the record and not the political interests of the executive branch," Powell said. 

“Regulations should be based on facts about the market and precise demonstrations of substantial and enduring harm to the public interest," said American Cable Association President Matt Polka. "Unfortunately, in proposing new set-top box mandates, the FCC met none of these benchmarks, nor does the Administration in its message.  As the American Cable Association will show in comments submitted on April 22, the FCC’s proposal has no basis in fact and will confuse and frustrate subscribers while imposing enormous costs on smaller providers, infringing on their programming agreements and harming network security.

“Finally, it is disappointing that the Administration would pass judgment without letting the independent agency process work and without considering the views of all interested parties, including small cable operators.”

“The Administration’s disregard for the integrity of the rulemaking process is appalling," said USTelecom President Walter McCormick. "There is no need to mince words. When the president ‘calls upon’ his appointees and an agency chairman who serves at his pleasure to act in a particular way, he is ‘directing’ them, and all credibility in the independence of the agency and trust in the administrative process evaporates. The legitimacy of this rulemaking proceeding has now been irreparably compromised.”

“Independent regulatory agencies, by law, are supposed to make their decisions based on facts in the public record and not based on politics or pressure from the White House. Unfortunately, just as it did in the Title II proceeding, the White House is intervening in order to direct an outcome that favors one company viewed by many as its political ally," said AT&T executive SVP of external and legislative affairs James Cicconi. "In fact, it is already claiming political credit for the outcome it has directed.  This is troubling on so many levels, and is a blatant subordination of policy to politics.

“This action not only damages the only companies seriously investing to build broadband infrastructure for this country, it also does great harm to the confidence we should be able to have in the impartiality of the FCC’s proceedings. It seems clear this intervention is aimed at muscling Democratic commissioners to support the Google proposal;  to do otherwise they would not only have to defy the FCC Chairman but now also the President. This situation is not even remotely fair to the many legitimate factual concerns that have been raised about the Google proposal and its potential harm to consumers, to broadband investment in the United States, to copyright protection, and to the very existence of independent and minority-owned content."

"The White House action is troubling for several reasons," said Free State Foundation President Randolph May. "First, the pattern the Obama Administration is establishing of repeatedly intervening in FCC proceedings in such a high-profile way is serving to compromise the Commission’s independence and undermines the expectation that it is an agency acting based on its supposed expertise rather than political considerations. Second, the statement evidences a complete lack of understanding of how much the video marketplace has changed since 1996 in the direction of more consumer choice and competition. It’s as if the White House deliberately put on blinders so as not to see how rapidly new independent online streaming services and devices are proliferating. The White House ignores the fact that the FCC itself found that cable companies operate in presumptively competitive markets across the country. Third, if the White House statement is any indication of what passes for meaningful economic analysis in this Administration -- as opposed to political rhetoric -- then we’re in real trouble.”

“It is simply bewildering that President Obama would come out in support of the FCC’s controversial proposal to change the way we watch television at home," said Digital Citizens Alliance Executive Director Tom Galvin. The FCC’s set-top box proposal raises serious issues about privacy and data collection of children’s viewing habits. These are issues the White House has expressed concern about in the past, but seems to ignore now."

An alliance spokesperson said the group comprises "private citizens, the health, pharmaceutical and creative industries as well as online safety..."

Among the fans of the White House proposal was Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the authors of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that required the FCC to promote competition in navigation devices and one of the legislators whose push to "unlock" the box resulted in the FCC's rulemaking proposal.

“Consumers, competition and choice are at the heart of a robust 21st century economy, and today’s announcement from the President will help ensure that these priorities drive the video box marketplace," said Markey. "The FCC’s recently-announced framework for innovators and companies to develop new technologies to allow consumers to access video programming without having to rent a box from their pay-TV provider in perpetuity is smart, fair and will spur the kind of competition that should animate our communications policies. I look forward to working with President Obama, my Senate colleagues, and the private sector to ensure consumers enjoy the benefits of a robust and affordable video box market.”

The Computer & Communications Industry Association is another fan of the set-top proposal, which was pushed by Google.

“President Obama is right that set top boxes are symbolic of the problems that arise when gatekeepers control a product," said CCIA President  Ed Black. "Cable’s set top boxes have been a $19.5 billion consumer rip off, but the problem goes beyond cost and people accessing cable on modern devices of their choice. The tragedy, as we saw with old black rotary dial phones years ago, is not just that consumers get overpriced, inferior products -- but that innovation stalls. If America is to remain an innovator and competitor in the world market, boosting competition is a no cost fix that offers choice and opportunities for consumers and innovative companies. This is the type of pragmatic progressive step that can work both for consumers and for America’s innovation sector.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.