FCC’s New Year’s Revolutions

Next year is shaping up to be a potential watershed year one broadcast and cable lobbyists, and execs and lawyers as the FCC prepares to remake the TV band. Also, a federal court could throw a wrench into either the commission’s plans to regulate the Internet, or Internet service provider’s plans to invest in further broadband build-outs and upgrades.

Congress will likely be tied up with getting itself reelected, so the FCC will be the hot spot of activity, though cable operators are hoping the Senate can see its way clear to making the ban on ISP taxes permanent.

Choosing a Lifeline?

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler may try to frontload key decisions, perhaps opting to move on Lifeline reform (in case commissioner Mignon Clyburn exits to run for her father’s House seat or at least signals to the chairman that the option of exiting remains open). That has been the scuttlebutt, although someone close to the commissioner said that was not their understanding.

In any event, it will almost certainly be Wheeler’s last year in the post and he has plenty on his plate.

Cable ops will be looking for a decision on set-top security, preferably confined to security rather than an AllVid approach to navigation devices that would disaggregate cable channels in service of a “one video ring to unite them all” approach.

Auction Dates

Broadcasters will have to apply for the incentive auction by Jan. 12 or watch from the sidelines. Those who do apply will have until March 29 to commit to the auction, or head to the sidelines as well.

While they are either watching or participating in the band- and game-changing incentive auction, broadcasters and their representatives in Washington will likely be in a pitched battle with cable operators over how the FCC should, or should not, adjust its retransmission consent regime.

If broadcasters get their way, the FCC will tread lightly. If cable operators get their way, retrans blackouts will be defined out of the broadcaster playbook, with baseball-style arbitration introduced, and exclusivity rules backstopping contractual prohibitions on importing alternate TV station signals during retrans impasses excised.

Wheeler wants those exclusivity rules gone, but he has gotten pushback from Congress, including high-profile Democrats.

The commission is working on a new privacy enforcement regime for broadband CPNI after giving itself new oversight powers through the Title II reclassification. The court will decide whether it gets to follow through with that.

One thing that probably will not return to the front burner anytime soon—Wheeler’s proposal to reclassify some online video providers as multichannel video programming distributors so they could get program access protections. That rebuffed by some big Silicon Valley players and the chairman has since signaled he will not push for a vote.

And while it may be a case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, gotten trained and won the Triple Crown, but the FCC is under a self-imposed 2016 deadline to resolve its overdue quadrennial review of media ownership rules.

Those rules have been on the books for decades and treat broadcasters as though the relevant competitive market did not include cable and satellite and online video providers, including those wireless operators now also in line to buy up broadcast spectrum. Timing is everything, isn’t it?

Laundry List

It’s a complicated year; here’s a handy guide to issues on which broadcasters and cable operators will either sink or swim:

Incentive Auction. March 29 will be the first day in the rest of many broadcasters’ lives as they either put spectrum in or wait to see where they’re headed in a remade spectrum band.

Charter/Time Warner Cable, Altice/Cablevision. The FCC has two major deals to vet that could redraw the competitive landscape this year.

Net Neutrality. Court decision in Title II challenge could come by April, then likely more court decisions as whoever’s ox is most gored appeals.

Retransmission Consent. The FCC is working on review of good faith negotiations per congress, which could include bagging exclusivity rules, but Wheeler may not have the votes.

Broadband Customer Proprietary Network Information. Under Title II classification of ISPs, the FCC has new power over consumer privacy. It is working on a framework that one top FCC watcher says could be a “beast.”

Set-Top/Navigation. With what will the FCC replace its current CableCARD set-top security regime? And will it be confined to security?

Media Ownership. The FCC has set itself a “no earlier than June” deadline for finishing its review of ownership rules. After more than 10 years of uncertainty, broadcasters will be looking for answers.

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.