FCC Commissioners Show Divide on Set-Top Box Proposal

FCC commissioners on Tuesday showed sharp divisions over a controversial proposal to open up the cable and satellite set-top box to competition.

Speaking on a panel at INTX, formerly known as the Cable Show, the two Republicans on the FCC, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, not only characterized the proposal as regulatory folly, but also criticized the current process in which it is up for public review.

The proposal would establish an open platform so manufacturers could create their own set-top box — a move that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says would allow consumers to buy their device rather than rent it from the cable provider.

But critics question why such a mandate is needed at a time when multichannel providers and content providers are moving to apps and on-screen guidance.

“Why the FCC would choose, with all the other issues on its plate…to focus on something that is increasingly fading in the background is beyond me,” Pai said. He said that although the FCC is currently in a comment period in which anyone can weigh in on the proposal, he said that the process was more of a “dictation” than a conversation.

O’Rielly said that the FCC should have instead sent out a notice of inquiry over the set-top box market rather than an actual proposal.

“I would take the current proposal and throw it in the garbage. That is where it belongs,” he said.

Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, who voted with Wheeler in February to put the proposal up for public review, defended the process.

Clyburn said that it is “healthy to have these conversations” about the direction of the industry.

“If you do not agree with the original premise, you have an opportunity to weigh in,” she said.

Rosenworcel noted that it is by congressional mandate to promote competition in the market for set-top boxes.

“My mind is open,” she said, adding that “this is a market that could use competition, but we also have a proposal before us that is very complicated.”

On Monday, in opening remarks at INTX in Boston, National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. CEO Michael Powell bashed what he called the FCC’s “relentless regulatory assault” on the industry. The set-top box proposal is the latest controversial proposal that has drawn the ire of the industry, along with groups like the MPAA and SAG-AFTRA that have warned of its consequences for protecting copyright.

Wheeler will address the conference on Wednesday.

He said in an interview earlier this year that “all we are saying is, ‘Cable operators, you can go ahead and control your product. But have an open platform so that anyone can build a device, and then let’s compete on who can offer the better device.'”

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