FCC Votes to Approve Controversial Set-Top Box Rule

Tom Wheeler FCC - H 2013
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Tom Wheeler FCC - H 2013

The Federal Communications Commission has approved a rule that aims to allow consumers more access to television programming beyond expensive cable set-top boxes.

The proposal, which gathered heated debate before being formally presented by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in January, recognizes sweeping shifts in the television landscape including on-demand and streaming services. Wheeler's stated goal is to "tear down anti-competitive barriers" by giving new device makers access to programming with the potential for better ways to search and interact with content. The rule was adopted Thursday by a 3-2 vote.

Critics of the proposal, from the MPAA to most of the satellite and cable companies, consider it to be, in Comcast's words, a "government-mandated technology solution" that threatens to disrupt intellectual property as well as contracts dictating channel placement, on-demand access and place- and time-shifting. 

"Today’s action inexplicably ignores the market-driven 'apps' based approach suggested by the technical committee, which is rapidly proliferating in the market and giving consumers unprecedented options to receive video programming services," writes Comcast senior executive vp David L. Cohen in a blog post.

A group organized to lobby against the rule also sees this as a boon to the likes of Google and Apple with serious privacy implications for consumers.

Under the rule, an independent, open standards body will come up with a format that programming is to be delivered. The FCC has tried to soothe industry concerns by insisting that device makers will have to abide by restrictions on what a device is allowed to do with content. The media agency is also looking to condition access to programming with compliance to privacy standards that cable and satellite companies must abide by.

In a blog post, John Bergmayer at Public Knowledge is in support of the "unlock the box" rule for reasons of innovation and cost savings while also writing that concerns about privacy are legitimate. But he believes the rule doesn't interfere with this goal and suggests that the "FCC can require that pay TV operators themselves only make their content available via standards that require that compatible devices protect consumer privacy."