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Editorial: Hit Reset on Set-Tops

It’s time for FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to rethink the approach to promote competition in third-party navigation devices.

But don’t take our word for it. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agree there are problems with the proposal to give third parties access to multichannel video programming distributors’ set-top programming and subscribers’ data, and they don’t agree on much these days.

FCC Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted for the proposal, says the FCC needs to “find another way forward” to the goal she shares with Wheeler of more choice and lower prices.

Cable operators also have said they want to move away from boxes and the expense of maintaining them.

Various diversity groups—including the Congressional Black Caucus—have called on Wheeler to hit the pause button, though it is now looking more like it needs to be the reset button.

Cable operators are now pitching a “ditch the box” alternative to the chairman’s “unlock the box” idea. It would eliminate monthly fees for consumers who opt for downloadable apps for their own connected devices. The apps would be licensed without charge to third-party devices so long as they do not add a charge themselves. Those app licensing agreements would require manufacturers to honor licensing terms and prevent them from inserting or overlaying ads.

Importantly, cable operators say users will be able to search for both over-the-top and traditional providers “seamlessly” on the same device.

Promoting OTT competition via integrated search is another key to the FCC’s proposal to “unlock” the box.

Wheeler signaled last week that, while he was not exactly endorsing it, the move was progress toward working with the industry to achieve his goal of more robust navigation device competition.

We hope that progress bears fruit, and should signal to Hill Republicans to back off legislative gambits to tie the FCC’s hands via appropriations riders, which President Obama has signaled he would veto anyway. Sounds like cable’s proposal is a good starting point for that new path forward Rosenworcel was talking about.