FCC Set to Revise Set-Top Box Proposal With Focus on Apps

Tom Wheeler FCC Chairman
AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to soon unveil a revised proposal to open up the set-top box, shifting its focus to give device manufacturers access to streaming apps with cable operators’ channel feeds.

The purpose of the proposal would be to make apps more ubiquitous across streaming devices, and allow subscribers to forgo the cable box altogether. Wheeler has criticized the industry for collecting monthly rental fees for their set-top boxes from consumers, even after the cost of the devices have been recouped.

The proposal would require that cable companies make their apps available to other devices, such as smart TVs and gaming consoles, according to sources familiar with the plan and filings from industry representatives.

An FCC spokeswoman declined comment.

Wheeler’s initial proposal called for “opening up” the cable box by giving third-party manufacturers access to channel feeds for incorporation into their own boxes.

It was met by fierce opposition from the cable industry as well as Hollywood content companies, including the MPAA. Their objections included fears that it would jeopardize existing contracts and even make it easier for programming to be pirated.

Moreover, the industry worried that a company like Google, creating its own TV interface, could reorder the channel lineup and exert influence over programming via search functions.

The compromise plan is designed in part to alleviate concerns that cable operators and programmers would not have control over their content, such as where a channel was placed.

The cable and satellite industry pitched a compromise proposal during the summer that utilized apps, but they now object to what they describe as a creation of a FCC central body to enforce a single license for cable and satellite apps.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., in a filing with the FCC on Tuesday, said that a central licensing body would be “unnecessary” and that it would it amount to a “royalty-free compulsory license.”

“Programmers today do not pool and offer uniform rights across all platforms and uses,” the NCTA said in its filing. “They segment the market, offer some rights to OVDs and other rights to MVPDs, and make refined judgments about devices, device security, and how to distribute content on various platforms.”

The NCTA also said that if the FCC adopts licensing rules for apps, it should not stop cable operators from establishing individual agreements with device manufacturers.

According to a filing from the National Assn. of Broadcasters, the body would be comprised of multichannel operators and programmers. Broadcasters urged the FCC to ensure that the new plan does not disrupt agreements content providers make with multichannel operators. Studios also are concerned about what the plan would mean for its licensing of content, which specify the timing and exclusivity of content on different cable, satellite and online platforms, according to an industry source.

But the FCC has concerns that without a licensing body, cable operators could still engage in discriminatory or anti-competitive practices.