FCC's Wheeler: Set-Top Proposal Has 'Gotta Be Done’

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says that Comcast's announcement that it was putting set-top box functionality into Samsung Smart TVs and would not charge a monthly fee made the FCC's set-top case for it. He said he was encouraged by the “technological and business solution" the announcement represents and said it was a "model" and in "accord" with what the FCC "has been talking about."

But he still said the set-top proposal needed to get done to make sure that kind of model was available across the board. "Let's take how that is happening, put that in the rule, and make it available for everybody."

"I think that what Comcast just did is proving our point that you can take a third-party device, put set-top box functionality into it, and protect copyright and the economic ecosystem."

Cable operators have argued that Wheeler's proposal to make set-top content and data available to third parties threatens content protections, contracts, and ad integrity and would require new devices and network rebuilds.

Wheeler said it would not mean rebuilding the network or "all the other horrible things" the industry has cited.

He said the essence of the proposal was that content could be safely moved to third-party devices.

Asked if Comcast's move did not signal the market was already moving in that direction without the FCC, Wheeler answered that this was about one device and one cable company and that, "what Comcast giveth, Comcast can taketh away."

He suggested that Comcast had proven the concept that box functionality into third-party devices, then "let's make sure that supplies to all cable operators. Let's make sure that applies to all TVs. Let's make sure there is an opportunity for someone who can't afford a new TV but would like to quit paying the monthly fees and would rather buy a set-top box."

But as to Comcast's move somehow obviating the need for the set-top reg, he was not going there.

He said it was essential that the third party option be available to everyone regardless of who their cable operator is, regardless of the kind of TV, and "for all time, not until a unilateral decision is made to pull the plug."

Wheeler said his proposal "has gotta be done. And that's the road we are headed down."

"We are pleased that the Chairman has recognized Comcast’s announcement of the open-standard Xfinity TV Partner Program last week as a 'good win' and 'important thing,'" Comcast said in a statement. "This open source apps-based program is available to any interested third-party device manufacturer, including the dozens of companies that have already reached out to us since the announcement, further demonstrating the success of the marketplace apps-based approach that is occurring without heavy-handed government regulation. 

"While the Chairman complimented Comcast’s announcement, he questioned how to make that commitment applicable to other cable companies, but in our comments in the FCC’s proceeding, Comcast put forward principles to ensure the continued acceleration of apps in the marketplace.  

"Most importantly, the Chairman suggests that our app shows why his proposal can work, but the opposite is true.  The Chairman’s proposal favors a government-imposed set-top box mandate that goes well beyond expanding equipment options for consumers to instead taking apart existing video services to create new services.  That approach not only exceeds the FCC’s rulemaking authority, but also -- in stark contrast to the apps approach -- it creates numerous harms  -- increasing consumer costs, weakening content security, eroding privacy and other consumer protections, and undermining intellectual property rights and content licensing agreements.  In fact, our announcement proves the viability of a market-driven apps-based approach, which avoids the major issues with the hardware-based approach of the Commission’s Notice."

The Future of TV Coalition said it was glad Wheeler had notice that the marketplace is "already producing real technology solutions enabling a growing number of consumers to watch pay TV programming without a set-top box."

But it said those "market-driven, app-based solutions" were a far cry from the "sweeping, Google-backed mandate [Wheeler] has proposed," adding: "The Chairman’s mandate strips content creators of the tools they use to enforce licensing agreements and protect copyrights, while increasing consumer costs and weakening consumer privacy protections.  This is why a growing chorus of voices from diverse advocacy organizations, the creative community, and lawmakers in Congress are speaking out against Chairman Wheeler’s unnecessary and harmful mandate.”

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.