FCC approves, publishes draft set top box rules

22 February 2016 by Steve Blum
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As expected, the Federal Communications Commission moved ahead last week with a plan to rewrite the rules for network operators – cable, telephone and satellite – that deliver television channels to consumers, requiring them to allow third parties such as consumer electronics manufacturers and software developers to access their programming streams. The shorthand way of explaining it is to say that the set top box market will be open to competition – anyone would be able to license the necessary technology, build a box and sell it to consumers.

It’s both simpler and more complicated than that. It’s simpler because it’s not about the box. It’s about opening up proprietary programming streams to any device with the right licenses, content protection and all the other management functions that are included in today’s boxes. Might be another box, might be an app, might be technology embedded in another product such as a television set.

It’s more complicated because cable, direct broadcast satellite and telco platforms such as Uverse or FiOS are 1. largely mutually incompatible and 2. designed specifically to prevent third party devices (or apps) from gaining access. An elegant technical solution is impossible, but a workable one would be within reach if network operators cooperate. Which won’t happen. The last thing cable, telephone and DBS companies want is to open the gates of their walled video gardens. So regardless of what the FCC ultimately does, expect a long and messy battle to fully integrate traditional linear television channels with other video sources such as social media, games and over-the-top service like Netflix.

As soon as the FCC’s proposed regulations are formally published in the federal register, there will be two months for public comment and another month for rebuttals. As with last year’s network neutrality decision, the final rules could end up looking a lot different.