The Bell Tolls for FCC’s Cable Box Proceeding


cable screen

Top ranking Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee want the Federal Communications Commission to turn the page, close the book and throw it away on the pay-TV set-top box proceeding the agency began under Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler.

"There are numerous reasons that the Commission should close this docket,” committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), committee Vice chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and every other GOP member of Blackburn’s subcommittee said in a letter today.

Chief among the reasons is Republicans’ (and some Democrats’) view the the Wheeler proposal poses “an unnecessary regulatory threat to the content creation and distribution industries,” the lawmakers wrote. “Without a clear indication that the Commission rejects this current proposal, content creators will be hesitant to invest in high-quality video programs.”

Closing the docket would also send a “clear sign” to video programming distributors “that they can bring technological advances to set-top boxes and video delivery without fear that the Commission overturn them by regulation.”

Newly minted GOP FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is likely to be happy to oblige his Republican brethren, and that in turn is likely to bring a sigh of relief from opponents of the proceeding –Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc.'s DirecTV, other cable providers,  content companies such as Twenty-First Century Fox, and many others.

Wheeler pushed to open the set-top box market to competition to release pay TV customers paying rental fees to service providers. The proposal would have required pay-TV providers to make content, copyright protections and other information available to retail set-top box providers. The initiative turned into a policy battle  and a hairball of copyright and privacy law, private commercial contracts, questions of FCC regulatory authority and other complex issues.

“We urge you to close this proceeding and permit this industry to innovate and serve consumers free from restrictions of a government-chosen platform,” the Republican lawmakers said.

If Pai does do away with the proceeding, he’s likely to get some criticism for it when he next goes to Capitol Hill. Some top Democrats in Congress, including Sens. Edward Markey (Mass.) Ron Wyden (Ore.) were vocal in calling for the FCC to open up the cable box market to new entrants. Wyden issued a statement Jan. 24 calling for Pai to keep “moving forward with set-top box competition;” but the chances of the proceeding – if it continues at all – of continuing along the same lines contemplated by the Wheeler administration seem next to nil.