FCC's Set-Top Proposal Draws Crowd

Commenters flooded the FCC Friday, the deadline for initial input on chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to "unlock" MVPD set-top box info and share it with third-party navigation devices.

"No demonstrable market problem exists to justify the kind of intrusive tech mandates proposed by the Commission," said the Free State Foundation. "And it highly doubtful that any conceivable benefit could outweigh the heavy costs that the Commission now ignores - costs which will initially be paid by MVPDs or program content owners, but will ultimately be paid by consumers. The Commission performed no cost-benefit analysis of its proposal prior to its Notice. Nor did it even seek input to conduct such an analysis."

Agreeing that it was an unnecessary and counterproductive government attempt to enforce tech policy on an innovative space was California tech advocacy group CALinnovates.

"Our analysis found that the FCC’s proposal would result in higher bills," said CALinnovates executive director Mike Montgomery of the group's filing. “It is apparent that with this set-top box proposal the FCC is missing the forest for the trees.  Specifically, the Commission obsesses over the size of one ancient, crumbling tree – missing the thriving vegetation sprouting around it.”

The Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents the manufacturers and suppliers of communications networks, was another critic of the proposal. TIA said in its filing that the FCC is operating on the faulty premise that the marketplace is not "replete" with navigation choices. It also says the standards setting provisions "could lead to device incompatibility, and risk pre-determining which technologies will prevail over time, contrary to widely followed standards making protocols."

It says that if the FCC does proceed with its proposal, it should modify that rules so there is sufficient time to come up with a standard, no "predetermined" default standard, and due process safeguards. "Anointing technologies, including a default solution, well in advance of the completion of the standards process would place the FCC in the position of attempting to predict which technologies would most likely prevail in the marketplace. Such a backwards approach will hamstring innovation and increase consumer costs," TIA said.

Tech Knowledge saw a whole(sale) bunch of problems with the proposal.

"The FCC’s proposed regulations (the 'Wholesale Proposal') would do more than merely create competition in a market for the 'equipment' used to access MVPD services that is artificially separated from the underlying MVPD services themselves," it said. It called the plan a way to force MVPDs to offer "unbundled wholesale access to their underlying service offerings at a price of a zero, primarily for the benefit of software-based Internet “edge” providers like Google," and called that the "regulatory equivalent" of gaming the Open Internet rules and applying them to the cable side of the network.

"Forcing MVPDs to unbundle their application level services in order to enable third-parties to provide their own differentiated service offerings would turn MVPD services into the functional equivalent of broadband Internet access services the FCC subjects to Title II regulation," it said. 

The Writers Guild of America, West, weighed in strongly for the proposal. “For independent content creators, this translates into a great opportunity to reach our potential audiences because it will allow viewers to access the content of their choice – digital or traditional – from a single device that they own," the union said.

WGAW paints MVPDs as gatekeepers, so they see the box as a platform for online distributors “not sanctioned [as in distributed] by the gatekeepers” to get noticed. “Absent this FCC action, what viewers can readily see in their living rooms will be dominated, long into the future, by a very small number of very large corporations."

Other unions, and content creators, see it much differently.

"No matter what you think about the pay-TV set-top box market, the FCC may not promote alternatives by taking the intellectual property of the content industry and giving it to some members of the technology industry, or by making it easier for pirate site operators to build a black market business by stealing that content," Motion Picture Association of America's Neil Fried blogged about its comments. "Unfortunately, that’s what the proposal would do. We appreciate Chairman Wheeler’s repeated public comments that his proposal will respect our licensing agreements. But the text of the proposal falls short, treading into copyright issues over which the FCC has no authority."

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.