House Lawmakers Press Wheeler on Set-Top Box Plan

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By Kyle Daly

Sept. 16 — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler was deluged with fresh bipartisan congressional concerns Sept. 16 about his push to open the pay-TV set-top box market to competition.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), and two senior members of their respective panels, Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), called on Wheeler to release the text of latest proposal immediately.

“It is unclear what the Commission is planning, let alone its impact,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Wheeler.

Wheeler is facing new congressional pressure as he tries to round up a majority of votes on the five-member commission for his latest set-top box proposal, at least one aspect of which, a proposed new licensing process, is opposed by major content providers.

In a separate statement, Goodlatte and Conyers said “regardless of whether one supports or opposes the FCC’s efforts to create set-top box alternatives, we have very serious concerns that this should not be accomplished through a compulsory copyright licensing process that may well exceed the FCC’s jurisdiction.”

Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) led a group of 16 lawmakers in a letter to Wheeler asking him to delay a commission vote on the proposal scheduled for Sept. 29.

FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart told Bloomberg BNA that the item will not contain anything threatening copyright agreements and that releasing the text early would be “a radical departure from established procedure and could undermine the crucial deliberation process between Commissioners.” She said Wheeler still expects to hold a commission vote on the item as scheduled.

Industry Still Skeptical

The letters came a day after Wheeler appeared before a Senate panel to discuss FCC efforts including the set-top box proposal. He said he would be willing to remove a provision that would establish an independent board and standards governing licenses to distribute content, in the event that the rest of the commissioners want to do so. Commissioners Ajit Pai, Michael O'Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel questioned the authority of the FCC to get involved in licensing.

Following Wheeler's remarks, CBS Corp., The Walt Disney Company, Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., Time Warner Inc., Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. and Viacom Inc. together said in an FCC filing that the agency should stay out of licensing altogether, including asserting the authority to oversee the terms of licensing agreements.

Hart told Bloomberg BNA the provision was intended to protect content owners' licensing rights as pay-TV providers deliver their programming to third parties but that Wheeler is “willing to modify the proposal” if they don't want such oversight.

The White House also weighed in to support Wheeler's efforts without specifically addressing the licensing concerns. The administration has been “pleased to see FCC Chairman Wheeler actively listen to the many stakeholders involved to improve the proposal, and believe that he is charting out a responsible way to address” concerns, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman said in remarks prepared for a Sept. 16 economics conference.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kyle Daly in Washington at kdaly@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

The Upton-Goodlatte letter is available at: http://src.bna.com/iE7.

The Blackburn-Deutch letter is available at: http://src.bna.com/iE6.

The industry letter is available at: http://src.bna.com/iEq.

Furman's prepared remarks are available at: http://src.bna.com/iFw.

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