FCC Nears Vote on Contentious Set-Top Box Proposal

The FCC is poised to vote on a proposal Thursday designed to free consumers from renting cable and satellite set-top boxes, but questions remained on the final details of the plan.

The proposal would require that multichannel distributors, such as Comcast and Charter, offer a free app to subscribers that would allow them to access their programming on different devices and streaming services.

Hollywood studios and other content companies oppose the proposal’s call for the creation of a body that would be tasked with licensing the app. They fear that because the FCC would have oversight over the licensing, they would be forced to distribute content in ways with which they do not agree.

Earlier this month, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel expressed reservations over the licensing aspect of the proposal, leading to speculation that the plan was in for changes before the vote. Given the partisan split of the commission, her vote would be crucial.

Representatives from the Walt Disney Co., CBS Corp., Scripps Networks Interactive, and Time Warner met with FCC officials and discussed an alternative to the licensing plan. Instead of FCC oversight, the agency would conduct a “reevaluation” of the marketplace in 2020.

“This would provide time for apps to be deployed and for the app market to develop and function and, if necessary at the conclusion of that period, enable the Commission to assess whether any additional steps — consistent with its authority — should be taken,” according to an exparte filing from the companies. In the interim, the FCC would decline to entertain any complaints regarding the terms of the license.

On Tuesday, several Capitol Hill lawmakers urged the FCC to pass the set-top box plan.

“When we unlock the box, we unlock competition, we unlock choice, and we unlock innovation,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a conference call with reporters. He urged the commission to “finalize these rules without delay,” noting that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated competition in the TV navigation marketplace.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said that the discussions with the programmers and FCC officials were a “very important step forward.”

She also downplayed a letter that 63 House Democrats sent to the FCC last week urging them to delay the vote because of the programmers’ copyright concerns.

“I approached a few members who signed that letter,” she said. “I asked them why they had signed it. There was silence.”

Robert Johnson, the founder of BET, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also joined them in the call supporting the proposal, along with representatives from Consumers Union, the Writers Guild of America West and Best Buy.

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