FCC Hitting Pause On Pay-TV Overhaul?

For much of the past year, the Federal Communications Commission has been conducting a pair of proceedings that together, depending on their outcomes, could go a long way toward remaking the pay-TV business as we’ve known it. But at an oversight hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler seemed to turn down the heat under both of them.

Receiving the most attention at the hearing was the recently completed report by the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearing(DSTAC), in particular a controversial proposal in it to require pay-TV operators to disaggregate their services into discreet components that would allow third-party set-top box makers to design their own user interfaces that could leverage elements of pay-TV services to create new user experiences (see our previous discussions of the debate here, here and here).

Republican members of the committee were sharply critical of the proposal and accused the FCC of exceeding Congress’s mandate for DSTAC in allowing the committee to consider non-security elements of pay-TV interoperability. Some members all but endorsed a competing proposal, put forth by pay-TV service providers, to adopt an app-based approach to interoperability under which service providers would, in effect, virtualize their existing STBs, complete with proprietary UIs, into apps that could be downloaded and run on third-party devices. Read More »

The Wrong Debate Over Set-Top Boxes

Today (Nov. 9th) was the last day for filing comments with the Federal Communications Commission regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) and folks in the pay-TV industry were clearly getting nervous that the FCC might finally, really do something this time to “tear up the set-top box.”

Last week, eight of the largest pay-TV providers, along with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the Motion Picture Association Push_button_cable_boxof America, and several equipment manufacturers together sent a phalanx of lawyers and lobbyists to FCC headquarters, ex parte, in a desperate bid to head off any movement by the agency toward a rulemaking that would require pay-TV providers to disaggregate their services into rearrangable  parts as proposed by the technology company and public interest faction of DSTAC.

The group was particularly exercised by an ex parte filing with the commission in late October by Public Knowledge, Google, Amazon and Hauppauge purporting to fill in the technical details of the “virtual head-end” proposal made by the technology faction of DSTAC for separating out the components of pay-TV services. According to MPAA, NCTA et. al., however, the new version “is so changed that it is barely recognizable from [the technology group’s] earlier proposal in the DSTAC Report,” and required more time for study before they could adequately respond to it. Read More »

OTT Retransmission: The Next Net Neutrality

Come the fall, the Federal Communications Commssion’s consideration of its proposal to reclassify some over-the-top video services as multichannel video programming providers (MVPDs) is likely to become the agency’s next highly divisive issue, reprising the same ideological and partisan differences that marked the debate over net neutrality.

Last month, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler confirmed that the commission will take up the proposal in the fall, and indicated that he favored making the switch, which would grant online video distributors (OVDs) the same program access rights as cable and satellite providers while also imposing some of the same restrictions and FCC sealrequirements. But in a speech to the Churchill Club in Palo Alto, Calif., last week, Republican commissioner Ajit Pai, who had dissented at great length from the FCC’s net neutrality rules, laid down the gauntlet again.

“This morning, I would like to make clear that I strongly oppose this proposal,” Pai said. “Given the remarkable success of the over-the-top video industry, the burden should be on those who favor new regulations to prove what’s wrong and explain why we should change. That case just hasn’t been made.”

As with his opposition to net neutrality rules, Pai’s analysis of OVD reclassification leans heavily on standard conservative “free market: good; regulation: bad” framing. Beyond the boilerplate, though, he raises an issue that I also noted in a previous post here on OVD reclassification: Changing the FCC’s definition of who qualifies as a MVPD, by itself, will not guarantee OVDs will be able to retransmit broadcast signals on the same terms as cable and satellite providers because the FCC has no authority to convey a license to the copyrighted programming contained in those signals. Traditional cable TV systems operate under a compulsory license, created by Congress and administered by the U.S. Copyright Office, that gives them automatic permission to rebroadcast copyrighted programming in exchange for paying statutory royalties. Read More »