FCC Chief's Plan For New Set-Top Box Rules Loses Key Support

A proposal for new set-top box rules that would enable consumers to easily access television programs on tablets, smart TVs and other devices suffered a major blow this week, when Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel publicly backed away from the plan.

The original proposal called for new regulations that would enable companies other than cable and satellite providers to develop boxes that can access pay-TV programs. Earlier this year, the three Democratic commissioners, including Rosenworcel, voted to initiate the process for new rules; the two Republicans on the FCC opposed the proposal.

The White House supported the original "unlock the box" proposal, as did consumer advocacy organizations and the editorial boards of major newspapers, including The New York TimesUSA Today, and the Chicago Tribune.



Currently, customers who purchase pay TV from cable and satellite providers typically rent set-top boxes, at an average cost of $231 a year. Many customers who also watch online video on a TV screen use separate streaming devices -- like Rokus or Amazon Fire TVs -- while people who watch TV shows on tablets or smartphones often do so via apps.

The cable industry pushed back against the proposal, as did ad groups like the Association of National Advertisers.

Recently, the cable companies proposed an alternative plan: "Ditch the box." The basic idea -- which has yet to be fully fleshed out -- is that pay-TV operators would offer programs via apps.

Some consumer advocates have opposed key elements of the ditch-the-box plan, arguing that an app-based approach won't necessarily enable consumers to easily record shows for later viewing.

Despite those concerns, that proposal appears to be gaining ground -- at least according to reports in the Washington Post, Fortune and other outlets.

Earlier this week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appeared to be laying the groundwork to compromise with the cable industry. While he hasn't endorsed the apps-based plan, he reportedly said the agency is trying to reach an "accord" with cable companies, programmers and consumer groups.

"I am very happy about the kind of ongoing dialogue that is occurring around this issue because it wasn't occurring previously," he reportedly said.

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