Is the FCC's "Unlock the Box" Plan for Cable TV in Trouble?

A swing vote at the regulatory agency talks about "real flaws" in the original plan and hints at support for an emerging alternative proposal from the cable industry.
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Months of intense lobbying efforts from cable and content companies aghast at a proposed plan to inject competition into the cable television set-top box market could be paying off.

Back in February, the Federal Communications Commission voted to advance rules aimed at doing something about cable set-top boxes that have consumers paying on average $231 a year in rental fees. Under the plan, cable and satellite operators would have to provide "information streams" so that creators of new apps and devices would have both content and an understanding of what they are allowed to do with content.

Since that vote, many big companies in the industry including Comcast, CBS, Disney, Fox and Viacom have attacked the plan as a gift to companies like Google and Apple that might wish to enter the television market without expensive license agreements. Some in the industry have argued that the rules would boost piracy and hurt privacy while destroying licensing incentives and carefully calibrated contractual provisions dealing with advertising, channel placement and more.

Despite the strong reaction, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is fervently behind the plan and it has been cited by President Barack Obama as a leading example of innovation. Public advocacy groups also have largely been in favor.

On Monday, however, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told Reuters that "it has become clear the original proposal has real flaws ... we need to find another way forward. So I’m glad that efforts are underway to hash out alternatives."

Her voice is important because she is one of the three Democrats to have originally supported the proposal in the February vote. "Costs are high, innovation is slow, and competition is limited," she stated at the time. "I think we can do better."

Rosenworcel has been called a "swing vote" at the FCC with a bit of an independent streak. She also is awaiting confirmation on whether she will get to serve another term at the media regulatory agency.

Her newest comments about "flaws" in the FCC proposal and her appreciation for "alternatives" came after executives at Comcast, AT&T/DirecTV and Charter held meetings touting a plan to enforce "an industry-wide commitment to develop and deploy video 'apps' that all large MVPDs would build to open HTML5 web standards."

But the industry has been hyping an apps-based approach for a long time. In reaction to the cable industry alternative plan, one tech trade association praised "some positive moment" while raising a bit of skepticism about those "seek[ing] to retain a controlling grip on DVRs and recordable devices" and reiterating the need for "enforceable standards that will create a thriving market for competition."

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