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FCC Probes Cable Ops on ‘Ditch the Box’ Effort

The FCC has a bunch of questions for cable operators and other backers of an app-based “ditch the box” compromise proposal on promoting competitive navigation devices.

That is according to a list of questions FCC staffers have for those stakeholders, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, based on a copy supplied by a source and confirmed by FCC officials on background.

FCC staffers have been meeting with stakeholders after FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said he was open to productive discussions about finding common ground on the issue.

From the questions posed by FCC staffers, there are plenty of points that need clarifying but also some hope that the proposal could have legs.

There was plenty of “please clarifying” in the FCC staff questions but also a lot of “we agreeing.” That agreement was mostly on the broad strokes: HTML5 may be an appropriate platform for third parties to provide access to content; open standards provide more choice; that MVPD programming contract rights should convey to third party apps or devices (a key issue with programmers); and that the app should be free.

It is likely how “ditch the box” backers fill in the details that determines whether ditching the box can be the basis of a compromise.

Staffers also had questions about issues not in the proposal, specifically “whether the apps will be provided to consumers for free; will MVPDs also offer set-top boxes for free or for sale to consumers who choose to use an MVPD set top box so that all consumers may save money no matter their manner of access to their subscription?"; and “If the MVPD is also a consumer’s ISP will the MVPD app count against any data cap?”

Following meetings with stakeholders over the past couple of weeks—with more meetings planned—below are the proposal points (in bold) the FCC is seeking input on, followed by FCC staffer comments and questions. All are direct quotations from the document.

MVPDs with 1 million or more subscribers will develop an app within 2 years

o   We agree that larger MVPDs are in a position to provide consumers with a competitive option in the near term. Consumers of all MVPDs deserve choice, therefore we are interested in options for smaller MVPDs to provide competition in a manner and timeframe that best suits smaller MVPD technology and resources.

o   Please clarify which MVPDs have HTML5 apps today and the expected timeframe for the other MVPDs to develop an app. To the extent that larger MVPDs already have apps available, what amount of work is required to meet these commitments? 

o   Once the apps are developed will the MVPDs scale back their deployment of set top boxes? 

o   How can consumers who prefer to use a box also have competitive options?

Apps to be based on W3C’s HTML5 Open Web Platform (or successor standards).

o   We agree that HTML5 may be an appropriate platform for app developers to provide access to content.

o   Please clarify how HTML5 provides an open standard for developers and manufacturers.

o   Please describe the anticipated life span of the HTML5 standard, is a successor standard being developed now?

Use of the open standard would give consumers a broad choice of smart TVs and other "connected" retail devices on which they could receive their subscription multichannel service.

o   We agree that the use of an open standard will enable consumers to have a wide array of choices in apps and devices to access their subscription MVPD service.

o   Please clarify what category of devices falls within “retail devices.” For instance, does that category only include in-home devices?

o   Please clarify what a third-party retail device must be “connected” to. To the Internet or to a cable service? Must a consumer subscribe to a broadband Internet access service? To the MVPD’s broadband Internet access service?

Keep content secure

o   We agree that all competitive options for consumers must keep content secure.

o   Please clarify which content protection systems (e.g., DRM and/or CAS) will be supported by each MVPD with 1 million or more subscribers. How much overlap is there between the sets of content protection systems supported by each MVPD?

o   On what terms are these content protection systems available?

App will include all linear and on-demand programming that the MVPD has the rights to include

o   We agree that apps and devices should provide consumers with all of the programming that they have access to through their subscription and that MVPD contract rights to that programming should be conveyed to any app or device.

o   Please clarify what must occur in order for MVPDs to gain the rights to include all programming and all resolutions that are currently provided by a MVPD’s set-top box. Is further negotiation between MVPDs and content providers required?

o   Please clarify what other services will be available, such as DVR, fast forwarding, rewinding, and PIP.

App will include MVPD user interface

o   Innovation and competition in user interfaces has the potential to lead to consumer friendly features.

o   To the extent that a device may offer accessibility features not available in the MVPD user interface will consumers be able to access those feature while watching content in the MVPD app? (Example: Siri can turn on closed captioning).

MVPD will license its app without charge to manufacturers and app stores without charge, as long as the manufacturer or app store does not impose a fee or surcharge on the MVPD or consumer for 1. Using the app 2. Providing the app or 3. Transactions within the app

o   We agree that the provision of the app at no charge is a critical goal.

o   Please clarify the proposed licensing model, would each device manufacturer need a license, or if the manufacturer relies on a widely deployed platform (Android) would only the platform need to enter into a license with the MVPD?

License would be available on standard commercially reasonable terms

o   We agree that a licensing model is a viable option to ensure a variety of protections and that a license should be available to all apps and devices that meet basic standards.

o   Please provide more details on the proposed license terms, including any envisioned enforcement provisions.

o   Per our discussion, please clarify whether non-discriminatory terms regarding devices, platforms, and other content apps are contemplated.

o   Will the license be standard across all MVPDs?

License terms require the manufacturer to respect customer privacy and other consumer protections advertising rights and protections, branding and copyrights.

o   We agree that all apps and devices must protect consumer privacy, advertising rights and protections, branding and copyrights.

o   How are advertising rights and consumer protections communicated to the manufacturer?

Manufacturers must maintain the technical integrity of the app

o   We agree that the technical integrity of the MVPD subscription service must be protected

o   Please provide more details on the language of the requirement and proposed enforcement.

 User Interface

Consumers will be able to use the manufacturers’ UI to choose among various video services and other device features. The approach would allow any manufacturer to offer innovative retail devices that can access and search MVPD service along with online content.

o   We agree that consumers should be able to access all of their content in one place and be able to search across all of their content in one place.

o   How would the third-party device interact with the MVPD app? Will there be any standards and/or APIs that enable this interaction?

o   What is the functionality (or functionalities) within the proposal for a manufacturers’ UI. In other words, what are the contemplated, permissible features of a “user interface?”

Once a consumer selects content from an MVPD, that content is viewed within the MVPD app

o   A user interface provided a third party may enable consumers to better enjoy or access the content they pay for (for instance, better accessibility features or access to social media).

o   To the extent that a device may offer features not available in the MVPD user interface will consumers be able to access those feature while watching content in the MVPD app? (Example: Siri can turn on closed captioning)

 Integrated Search

MVPD app will enable the device to combine search results from MVPD content and from OVDs offering licensed content

o   We agree that integrated search is key to consumers and should be an option on all competitive apps and devices

o   Please clarify what data will be shared with the device to fully enable integrated search of all content a subscriber is entitled to (linear, VOD).

o   Please clarify how the MVPD app will share any data. Will there be any standards or APIs?


Apps will be built within 2 years, commitment to provide app extends another 3 years, for a total of 5 years. May be renewed by Commission if warranted.

o   We appreciate the commitment to provide consumers with options within the near term.

o   Please explain why 5 years was selected.

 Other Commercial Agreements Welcome

MVPDs and manufacturers of retail devices may continue to enter into other bilateral commercial agreements, such as those that support retail platforms today.

o   We agree that MVPDs should be free to enter into bilateral commercial agreements that do not impinge on competition.

o   Please clarify if such agreements would be in lieu of the commitments. What would these agreements provide that the commitments would not?