Tired of renting a cable set-top box? The FCC is looking for alternatives – Los Angeles Times

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Regulators on Thursday put the metal boxes most Americans rent to receive cable or satellite programming at the center of a high-stakes fight over the future of TV and video.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 along party lines Thursday to begin crafting new rules intended to spur competition in the set-top box market by developing technology standards to allow the development of third-party devices and apps capable of decoding pay TV signals.

Such technology would allow consumers to purchase boxes from technology companies instead of renting them and could open the door to all-encompassing devices and apps that combine pay TV access with Internet streaming.

“The issue is whether you are forced to rent that box every month after month,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, who pushed for the agency to develop the new rules.
“The consumers have no choice today.”

About 99% of the nation’s 100 million pay-TV subscribers rent at least one set-top box, with the average household paying $231 a year in fees, according to a survey by Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). That adds up to about $20 billion a year in revenue for pay-TV providers.

But the formal rule-making process also raises difficult issues involving the privacy of valuable data about consumer viewing habits, copyright and licensing protections for video content as well as the effects on minority programming and TV networks.

The FCC’s decision, which stems from a 1996 law that requires the agency to ensure the commercial availability of navigation devices, sets up a major fight.

On one side are Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and other pay-TV providers, who oppose FCC open-technology mandates for set-top boxes.

They prefer an approach focused on apps, such as the customized ones some providers are rolling out that allow subscribers to access programming from various devices and that could eliminate the need for set-top boxes.

On the other side are consumer groups and technology firms such as Google, TiVo and Vizio interested in developing new devices that would be able to combine pay-TV programming with other features, such as Internet streaming and expanded program guides that could feature advertising.

Advocacy coalitions have formed on both sides of the debate, and members of Congress have begun expressing support and opposition.

Hollywood is split on the issue. The Motion Picture Assn. of America, which represents the large movie studios, opposes new set-top box mandates. The Writers Guild of America, West, is backing the FCC’s effort.

The battle-lines are similar to those in the highly charged debate over Internet traffic rules, known as net neutrality.

Last year, Wheeler and the commission’s Democratic majority sided with consumer groups and technology firms in enacting tough new utility-like oversight of high-speed Internet service providers.

AT&T Inc. and other broadband providers – many of whom are large pay TV companies as well — are challenging the net neutrality regulations in federal court along with the wireless industry.

And new rules to open up the set-top box market could be headed to court as well if they are adopted by the FCC.

“This isn’t some minor inconvenience in regulatory land,” said Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., a trade group. “This is mission critical to the rights and practices that these companies have.”

Powell this week said his organization was hopeful the FCC would produce rules pay TV companies could live with. But if not, he said a legal challenge was possible.

The FCC’s two Republicans, Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly, voted against the proposal Thursday.

They said the agency’s Democratic majority was intent on forcing new regulations on a rapidly evolving industry that could lead to higher costs for consumers as pay TV providers have to make changes to their networks.

“Our goal should not be to unlock the box. It should be to eliminate the box,” Pai said.

The video marketplace is creating new apps that allow pay TV subscribers to watch programming via apps and FCC mandates are a “20th century approach to this 21st century problem,” he said.

Markey, who co-authored the provision in the 1996 law that requires set-top box competition, said new rules were needed to make that goal a reality after earlier failed attempts.

“Without strong FCC action consumers, would be left with no choice but to rent set top boxes from the cable providers in perpetuity,” he said.


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Tired of renting a cable set-top box? The FCC is looking for alternatives – Los Angeles Times