FCC votes to ‘unlock the box’

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

US regulator the FCC has approved plans that will allow software, devices, and other solutions to compete with the set-top boxes in a bid to “tear down anti-competitive barriers.”

The Federal Communications Commission said the proposal offers a framework to “unlock the box”, giving more choices to the “99% US pay TV subscribers” that currently lease set-top boxes from their cable and satellite operators.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) will give device manufacturers, and app developers the information they need to develop new technologies – be that hardware or software based offerings.

The FCC said that the move will address “the many ways consumers access their subscription video programming today” and a lack of competition that has meant “few choices and high prices for consumers”.

The FCC’s proposal recommends that pay TV providers should be required to deliver three core streams of information: what programming is available, such as channel listing and video-on-demand lineup; what a device is allowed to do with content, such as recording; and the programmes themselves.

The FCC’s plans were met with opposition from the Future of Television Coalition – an organisation that was set up to oppose “unnecessary technology mandates” that it claims threaten market-based innovation in the TV space.

The coalition, which counts companies like US pay TV operators Dish and Cablevision and set-top maker Arris, described the FCC’s proposal as “flawed”, “costly” and “destructive”.

“The rules under consideration will drive up consumer costs, hurt programmers (and most especially small and diversity programming), and blow a gaping hole in Congressional protections for our TV privacy – all for an unnecessary government giveaway to Big Tech. In short, this rule does not make sense,” said The Future of TV Coalition in a statement.

However, set-top box maker TiVo backed the plan, claiming the FCC’s rulemaking is “important to ensure choice for consumers, operators, and content creators.”

In a statetmenet, TiVo’s senior vice president, general counsel and chief privacy officer, Matt Zinn said: “We are hopeful that this proceeding results in a competitive environment that increases choice, both for consumers and operators, and protects the business models that operators and device makers have created under the current CableCARD system.”

European cloud TV service Magine also welcomed the FCC’s decision with CEO Ambuj Goyal commenting: “It’s all about breaking down barriers. Viewers want to watch amazing content in the most economical way. What the FCC did today was to break down the barrier for device access.”

In a statement the FCC said: “ninety-nine percent of pay TV subscribers have limited choices today and lease set-top boxes from their cable and satellite operators. Lack of competition has meant few choices and high prices for consumers – on average, US$231 in rental fees annually for the average American household.”

It claimed that since 1994 the cost of cable set-top boxes has risen 185% while the cost of computers, televisions, and mobile phones has dropped by 90%.

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