FCC set top box plan takes app-based approach

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission has backed off from requiring pay-TV companies – cable, telco, satellite – to open up their networks and allow consumers to buy and use a set top boxes made by third party companies. Instead, the FCC is pushing a hybrid plan – given the litigious response from the industry, I wouldn’t call it a compromise – that would have pay TV operators create apps that can run on third-party boxes.

The FCC has only released a summary of the proposed new rules. It’s the commission’s standard practice to keep the actual text of decisions secret until after a vote is taken, although the veil of secrecy seems permeable if you’re sufficiently well connected. Or if the chairman wants to write an op-ed piece about it. As Tom Wheeler did yesterday in the Los Angeles Times.

According to the summary, pay TV apps have to deliver the same level of programming access as an in-house box…

The new rules will require pay-TV providers to offer to consumers a free app, controlled by the pay-TV provider, to access all the programming they pay for on a variety of devices, including tablets, smartphones, gaming systems, streaming devices or smart TVs…

While consumers will still pay their monthly subscription fees for the service, they will be able to download an app to devices they purchase or already own to access pay-TV service, so they are no longer forced to rent boxes from their pay-TV provider. Of course, a consumer may choose to keep their set-top box and enjoy their pay-TV programming as they do today…

Pay-TV providers must provide their apps to widely deployed platforms, such as Roku, Apple iOS, Windows and Android. Doing so will spur competition in the marketplace to develop new competitive products like next-generation streaming devices, smart TVs and tablets.

Pay TV companies will have two years to deliver the apps. Published reports indicate the plan also includes some kind of oversight board that will, in some way, be answerable to the FCC but will otherwise be driven by the industry.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the proposal at their 29 September 2016 meeting. Two other rumored items – regulation of middle mile broadband services and new consumer privacy rules – will have to wait until a later meeting.