FCC Set-Top Box Vote Delayed Indefinitely

Today was meant to be the day that many have been waiting for all year long. After months of developing a plan that would provide an apps-related alternative to set-top boxes (STBs), the FCC was scheduled to vote on it.

Yesterday, in an effort to gain public support, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) heartily endorsed the FCC’s initiative on his Facebook page.

“The Federal Communications Commission—or FCC—has said that it’s time to “unlock the box” and give consumers a meaningful choice in how they access the content they pay for. Instead of renting one of those dust gatherers, consumers would be able to access the full content of their cable subscription via an app—just like Netflix, Hulu, or HBO GO—at no additional charge. That means you’d use the app with your smartphone, tablet, smart TV, or on a device like the Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, or Amazon Fire Stick. Can you imagine how much easier that would be than the outdated way we’re doing things now?” Franken said.

Then, at the very last moment, the FCC made a surprise announcement this morning.

"The Set-Top Box Order has been removed from the September Open Meeting Agenda. The proposal will go on the Commission’s circulation list and remain under consideration by Commissioners," the FCC said. “We are still working to resolve the remaining technical and legal issues and we are committed to unlocking the set-top box for consumers across this country.”

It is unclear if or when a final vote on the matter will occur at this time.

Several entities came forward with statements on this lack of action.

“We are pleased that the FCC has chosen to delay consideration of its set-top box item, and hope that additional time will lead to meaningful public review and comment on any newly-crafted proposal under consideration.  Our industry is committed to a future where viewers have the freedom to watch their favorite shows on a wide variety of tablets, streaming consoles, smartphones and other connected devices.   We will continue our efforts to innovate in the marketplace to expand consumer choice, promote market innovation, protect the rights of content holders, and respect consumer privacy,” NCTA said in a statement, cheering the decision.

Meanwhile, Public Knowledge, took an opposing view.

“We are disappointed that the Commission was unable to adopt this item today. While this appears to be a short-term delay, consumers are getting bilked more each day this drags on,” said John Bergmayer, Senior Counsel at Public Knowledge. “This issue has been under consideration at the FCC for two years now, and the benefit of further delay is unclear. Opponents of unlocking the box will continue to shift from one manufactured concern to another in an attempt to keep consumers renting the controlled, locked-down set-top box, costing consumers billions and holding back innovation and video competition. We will continue to push the FCC to act as soon as possible to end the set-top box ripoff.”

Harold Feld, senior vice president at the consumer group Public Knowledge, attributed the delay to FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

"Rosenworcel in particular is a very technically oriented commissioner," Feld told the Washington Post. "They clearly want to do something, but it's also clear that in her case she's not going to agree to a general shape of something and give editorial privileges to work out the details later. She is going to want to make sure the details are resolved."

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), also claimed to be let down by the FCC.

“Today’s vote delay is an unequivocal loss for the tens of millions of Americans across the country who are forced to spend their hard-earned money on overpriced set-top box leases that cost them hundreds of dollars a year. I am extremely disappointed that the majority of the FCC Commissioners have not yet come to an agreement to provide relief for consumers for these bloated set-top box rental fees and certainty to companies who wish to innovate with new products. I urge the Commission to complete this rulemaking as soon as possible. Consumers have waited for more than two decades for the promise of a robust set-top box marketplace to be fulfilled; they should not have to wait one more billing cycle,” Markey said.

And in more of a neutral position, tech industry trade group INCOMPAS encouraged a continuation of the discussion.

"Competition is the law, and the FCC has an obligation to continue working toward solutions that bring real choice, innovation and lower prices to consumers," said Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS. "The members of the commission are smart, well intentioned, and we believe they will find common ground that will open the market and promote innovation. For competition to rise, the set-top box monopoly must fall, and we look forward to working with all members of the FCC toward this shared goal.”

It sounds like Pickering remains hopeful that the FCC will finalize the plan’s language and a vote will be held before the end of 2016.

Author: Brian Cameron

Image via Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock.com
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