FCC's Proposal to Reshape Access to TV Programming Appears Doomed

FCC chairman Ajit Pai holds his first presser and takes questions about net neutrality, the AT&T-Time Warner merger and more topics.
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Ajit Pai

The Federal Communications Commission has removed from circulation a controversial proposal once touted as the beginning of the end of expensive cable set-top boxes.

The proposal, introduced last year by then-chairman Tom Wheeler, would have required pay TV providers to offer consumers a free app for widely deployed platforms such as Roku, Apple iOS, Windows and Android. The plan wasn't quite as ambitious as Wheeler's original idea to mandate the delivery of video programming to tech developers so as to inject competition on set-top boxes and alleviate rental fees as high as $231, but nevertheless, the prospect of rules against the discrimination of independent content and an independent licensing body over apps was the subject of intense industry focus. Consumer groups, tech companies and the Writers Guild of America favored the proposed rules, while Hollywood studios and cable companies warned how it would upset contracts dealing with security requirements, advertising rules, channel placement obligations and so on.

After former FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel expressed doubts last June, the proposal was yanked from the agenda. Now, with the ascension of Donald Trump, the FCC is under the reign of Ajit Pai, who has been highly skeptical of such regulation and has removed the cable set-top box as an active proceeding.

At an open meeting Tuesday, Pai took questions from the press, and didn't fully commit to killing the proposal, but came close.

"This is one of the 23 items that we are reviewing," he said. "It's standard operating procedure when there is a change in administration, the new administration takes a look at the times that were pending under the previous administration. So we are still making a determination as to the appropriate steps forward."

On Monday, Trump signed an executive order that pushed departments under his control to revoke two regulations for every one new regulation. But at the presser, Pai confirmed that as an independent agency, the FCC wouldn't necessarily be beholden to the rule. Nevertheless, he once stated it is time to "fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation."

Of particular interest is the FCC's plan on its "open Internet rules," the net neutrality program that was enacted after some direction by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pai said he wouldn't make any news on the subject besides circulating to his colleagues an exemption for small businesses. The new chairman confirmed his antipathy to classifying broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, but says no determination has been made about future enforcement of net neutrality rules.

He also dodged a question about whether AT&T should submit its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable to the FCC for consideration. He said he wouldn't comment on any pending transaction, though he did at another point refer to his Congressional testimony in 2011 that merger reviews should only focus on narrow public interest standards. The AT&T-TW deal is to be reviewed primarily by the Justice Department. 

Asked how he viewed competition in light of Internet companies like Netflix and Hulu, Pai answered, "The only thing I can say is I tend to view the marketplace as is, instead of what was."

In his brief time heading the FCC, Pai has already made a move relieving broadcasters of obligations to maintain a file of public correspondence. He says the agency is studying the area of TV ownership rules. But he seems most keen on accelerating the deployment of broadband in rural and poorer areas, forming an advisory committee on the topic. Pai also spoke about doing something to address robocalling, referring to it as the "scourge of civilization."

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