FCC delays vote on secret set top box rules

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Just give me a little more, um, time.

A plan to require cable companies (and other pay TV operators) to open up their systems to third party set top boxes hit a wall this morning, as the Federal Communications Commission pulled the item from its monthly meeting agenda, just minutes before it was supposed to begin.

As crafted by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, the plan would have required cable (and satellite and telephone) companies to build apps that would run on boxes made and purchased and installed by pretty much anyone. The apps would provide access to the all the video programming and services offered by the company. An ill-defined committee – apparently made up of industry representatives and supervised by the FCC – would review and approve apps and iron out disputes over programming rights.

This industry panel provoked fierce criticism, not least because many believed that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to arbitrate copyright licensing disputes. That’s an area of the law that comes under the jurisdiction of other federal departments and courts. Objections came from the usual suspects in the industry – i.e. pretty much everyone – and congress critters on both sides of the aisle. And from one very important person: FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who openly bucked fellow democrat Wheeler, saying she “has problems” with the licensing scheme. With both republicans opposed to Wheeler’s plan, her vote was essential.

Wrangling over the plan continued, but half an hour before the meeting was supposed to begin, Wheeler, Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn – the third democrat on the commission – issued a statement saying that new set top box rules would be a wonderful thing, but “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.” Just not right now.

There’s more to the dispute than the rules themselves. The secrecy that surrounds the plan has also been sharply criticised. The FCC doesn’t publish draft decisions and final versions aren’t made public until sometimes weeks after a vote. But Wheeler is free to negotiate the details with whomever he chooses. So discussions with industry lobbyists – who have deep pockets full of political cash to contribute – continued behind closed doors while only a happy happy, joy joy summary of the plan has been released by Wheeler’s office. That’s business as usual in Washington, and particularly for Wheeler, who has turned the chairman’s role into that of lobbyist-in-chief.

We deserve better.