Wheeler Defends Navigation Device Proposal

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler spent some of his time at a House Appropriations Committee hearing March 15 defending his navigation device proposal as providing consumers access to their own data, not, as cable ops have suggested, handing over cable programming to third parties to do with what they will, including riding roughshod over copyrights and monetizing content without compensation.

Rep. Tom graves (R-Ga.) asked what problem the FCC was trying to solve in its proposal, which is to make cable set-top box data, including programming streams, available for third-party boxes for apps. (The story initially incorrectly attributed the question to Rep. Kevin Yoder [R-Kan.]).

Commissioner Ajit Pai, who joined Wheeler at the witness table in the budget hearing, had first crack. He said the problem with the navigation device market, to the degree there is one, has been that the FCC has had a "highly intrusive set of regulations to create the marketplace it wanted."

He said the Amazon Echo could be the navigation device of the future and that did not dovetail with "backward-looking technological mandates."

Graves said he did not understand how imposing a new technological mandate benefitted industry or consumers, especially given that apps are the future, and programming was already being accessed via apps.

Wheeler said he agreed the world was going to software and apps. But he said Pai was wrong to suggest that Echo could be the next navigation device. He said that wasn't possible: "Because the cable operators won't give the information that would be necessary for an Echo to operate, and therein lies the rub."

He said Congress had provided a "clear-cut, black-letter" mandate that there be access to competitive navigation devices, and that there had not been for the last 20 years. He said technology makes that possible.

Punctuating his words, Wheeler said Congress's mandate was that there "shall" be choice and that the FCC "shall do this."

He said 99% of consumers had no choice in boxes or apps, that they had to take what cable operators gave them. Wheeler said the item just made sure that while the cable operator had all the protections they have had, an Echo or other device had access to the cable set-top info so consumers could decide whether they wanted to keep paying $10 per month to lease a box. month after month, they were told they had to rent.

Wheeler said that all the cable operators content, and the tiering and authorizations to record and the protections of privacy remain the same. "The information that they send upstream today only talks to a device that they control," he said. "We're saying open up that so they can talk to other devices just like your Smart TV talks to Netflix or Hulu and allow for that kind of openness so the consumer has a choice."

He said the FCC does not want to infringe on cable operators' programming marketplace structure. But he also said it was a proposal and that if there were "holes in the proposal" that people are concerned about "we want to hear from them."

Wheeler said the FCC wanted to preserve copyright protections and would work with the Copyright Office.

"It’s disappointing and troubling that Chairman Wheeler continues to dodge basic questions about his set-top box proposal," said the Future of Television Coalition after the hearing. "Dozens of programmers, content creators, lawmakers, and community leaders have spoken clearly about the devastating impact this rule will have on the programming marketplace, and particularly on the independent networks serving communities of color. They deserve honest answers – not dismissals and dodges."

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.