Obama ‘Votes’ to Unlock Set-Tops

Washington — When it comes to broadband issues, the FCC appears to have a fourth Democratic commissioner: Barack Obama. Last week, the White House called on Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler to “open up set-top cable boxes to competition.” The president was preaching to the choir as Wheeler has already proposed to do that. But the administration move drew jeers from Internet-service providers that saw the move as compromising — they would say further compromising — the agency’s independence.


The move evoked President Obama’s call on the FCC in 2014 to reclassify Internet access as a Title II service subject to common-carrier regulations, though in that case his support preceded the FCC’s pivot, at least publicly, toward that approach to network-neutrality rules.

But the White House’s online set-top pep rally signaled an even broader initiative. Jason Furman, the president’s chief economist, blogged that the set-top proposal was the “mascot” for a new team eff ort by agencies to promote competition, with Obama planning to use his executive-order powers to direct government agencies to take “specific, pro-competition executive actions that empower and inform consumers, workers, and entrepreneurs.”

That would not include the FCC, which is an independent agency, but the commission now has its marching orders from the White House: Unlock the box.

Certainly that was the way that ISPs opposed to the proposal were seeing it last Friday.

The White House signaled its support in comments by the National Telecommunications & Information Association on April 14; then, at 6 a.m. the following day, it blogged its full-throated support of the set-top proposal, echoing talking points and statistics about set-tops.

Perhaps anticipating some major pushback, on the morning of April 14, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president and CEO Michael Powell hosted a demonstration of all the alternative navigation devices already in the market, making the point that the FCC’s move was not only inadvisable but unwarranted.

That sentiment was clearly not shared on Pennsylvania Avenue. Furman said the president “was calling on the FCC to open up set-top cable boxes to competition,” adding: “This will allow for companies to create new, innovative, higher-quality, lower-cost products. Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years to lease a set of behind-the-times boxes, American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget.”

Powell called the White House’s move good politics but bad government. Blogging not long after Furman did, he wrote: “Perhaps the strategists at the White House believe their intervention is good politics. But it is bad government, undermining the independence of the FCC and shattering any faith in impartiality and fundamental fairness. One would hope the FCC commissioners would resist being annexed by the executive branch. But that hope is sadly faint.”

American Cable Association president Matt Polka added it was “disappointing that the administration would pass judgment without letting the independent agency process work and without considering the views of all interested parties, including small cable operators.”

Over in the wireless ISP camp, USTelecom president Walter McCormick said the White House’s disregard for the “integrity” of the rulemaking process was “appalling.”

At the urging of companies including Google, a divided FCC voted Feb. 18 to approve Wheeler’s proposal to “unlock” the cable set-top, letting third parties access the content and programming and integrate it into their own navigation devices and online video lineups.


Wheeler has identified three “core” MVPD information streams that must be available to competitive devices or apps:

• Service discovery: Information about what programming is available to the consumer, such as the channel listing and video-on-demand lineup, and what is on those channels.

• Entitlements: Information about what a device is allowed to do with content, such as recording.

• Content delivery: The video programming itself.

Tech companies have long pushed for a common IP-based interface, buoyed by the National Broadband Plan’s proposal of “initiat[ing] a proceeding to ensure that all multichannel video-programming distributors install a gateway device or equivalent functionality in all new subscriber homes and in all homes requiring replacement set-top boxes.”

Cable operators countered that the result would be to deconstruct programming services in violation of copyrights, trademarks, contracts, licensing and other rights.

House: Block Broadband Rate Regs

Washington — A divided House has voted to block the Federal Communications Commission from imposing rate regulations on broadband service, both before the fact and through possible Open Internet order general-conduct standard reviews of practices like zero-rating and data-usage plans.

That’s the good news for ISPs who strongly supported the bill. The bad news is that President Obama has signaled he will veto it.

The bill, HR 2666, the No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act, was sponsored by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and passed out of a deeply divided committee before a deeply divided debate on the House floor last week.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said the debate was more about the general philosophical split over network-neutrality rules. Democrats say the rules are crucial to keep ISP gatekeepers in check; Republicans call them a solution in search of a problem, and one that will cause problems for innovation and investment.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler — who has said Title II authority won’t be used to regulate broadband rates — said the bill would gut the FCC’s regulatory authority to enforce the net-neutrality rules.

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.