After Massive Cable Industry Lobbying And Disinformation Effort, The FCC Is Forced To Weaken Its Cable Box Reform Plan

from the disinformation-nation dept

Back in February, the FCC approved a new plan to bring some much-needed competition to the old cable box, resulting in better, cheaper, and more open hardware. But fearing a loss of control (and $21 billion in annual cable box rental fees) the cable industry launched an unprecedented lobbying campaign featuring an endless barrage of editorials attacking the plan for encouraging piracy and even being racist. The cable industry even managed to get the Copyright Office to fight on its behalf, spreading false claims that the plan would “harm copyright” despite having really nothing to do with the subject.

This lobbying and disinformation plan caused several of the Commissioners who voted yes on the plan to unfortunately waffle on the original proposal. As such, FCC boss Tom Wheeler had to return to the drawing board, and is cooking up a heavily modified “compromise” plan that would focus on forcing cable providers to provide their content via an app:

The purpose of the proposal would be to make apps more ubiquitous across streaming devices, and allow subscribers to forgo the cable box altogether. Wheeler has criticized the industry for collecting monthly rental fees for their set-top boxes from consumers, even after the cost of the devices have been recouped.

The proposal would require that cable companies make their apps available to other devices, such as smart TVs and gaming consoles, according to sources familiar with the plan and filings from industry representatives.

Wheeler appears to be cooking up a plan that looks a lot like an underwhelming cable industry counterproposal circulated back in June. But as we noted at the time, providing content via tightly-controlled apps isn’t the same thing as open hardware, and isn’t all that different from what the cable sector offers today. Such apps usually are just as tightly controlled and restrictive as the cable boxes they’re meant to supplement or ultimately replace.

The cable industry has also strongly hinted that if it’s forced to offer programming via app, it will just seek its pound of flesh in other ways — such as charging consumers a new fee if they want to record and store content via cloud DVR. And while the FCC’s plan hasn’t been released yet, consumer groups and hardware vendor groups like INCOMPAS worry that an “app-based” proposal could simply swap out one ham-fisted attempt at control with another.

Given the cable industry spent millions to successfully manipulate the press, public, politicians and The Copyright Office to protect its anti-competitive cable box fiefdom, you’d think it would be happy about its success in weakening the FCC proposal. But the sector is still complaining, and is worried that the FCC would still be able to dictate terms of their license agreements with streaming box manufacturers like TiVO or Google:

“Cable operators and media companies also are suspicious of a proposed new FCC process for licensing their apps to device makers, viewing it as a chance for the FCC to meddle in their contracts. The FCC?s ?updated proposal will unequivocally fail if there is a possibility of governmental or other third-party intervention in the programming rights, obligations and restrictions negotiated by program suppliers, broadcasters and [cable firms],? the National Association of Broadcasters said in written comments to the agency Friday.”

Again, if the cable industry is forced to kill the cable box and shift its content to apps, it’s going to want to develop all manner of creative new ways to recoup that $21 billion in lost cable box rental fees. Whether that takes the shape of a $20 per month DVR recording fee or a $10 per month “because we said so” fee isn’t clear, but it is very clear the cable sector doesn’t want the FCC policing how these apps are licensed and presented. It took no time at all for stories to pop up online proclaiming that the FCC was on a power-hungry quest to create a “copyright licensing office within the FCC”:

“Instead, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is now considering the creation of a copyright licensing office within the FCC, replacing complex separate arrangements with device manufacturers with a single contract overseen and possibly written by the Commission?s staff….It would also unilaterally substitute the FCC for the Copyright Office in establishing and enforcing compulsory licenses for programming, without any indication?let alone legislation?from Congress authorizing such a radical shift.

But like so much said about the FCC’s plan over the last seven months, that’s simply not true. The FCC would primarily act to ensure the cable industry didn’t just supplement one bad idea (the locked down cable box) with another (apps saddled with onerous restrictions and fees), which is a pretty far cry from an entirely new copyright apparatus being forged in the belly of the FCC. And again, contrary to the Copyright Office’s claim, this debate has absolutely nothing to do with copyright, and everything to do with control.

If the FCC can’t get its own commissioners to support a meaningful cable box reform plan, it may not be worth the fight. A regulator-mandated attempt to replace the cable box with a half-cooked app-based approach may just deliver more of the same shenanigans in a different hat. An easier path may be for the FCC to give up on cable box reform, let the pay TV sector evolve or die organically, and focus its efforts on the biggest problem of the streaming video age: the lack of broadband competition and all of the anti-competitive chicanery (usage caps, net neutrality violations, zero rating) such dysfunction enables.

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Comments on “After Massive Cable Industry Lobbying And Disinformation Effort, The FCC Is Forced To Weaken Its Cable Box Reform Plan”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Much dustup over what will, eventually, be nothing

I am buoyed by the recent cord-cutting numbers, secure in the knowledge that it will be that, and not the otherwise-noble FCC initiatives, which will ultimately kill off set top boxes along with the service they carry. Whether by these thousands of small cuts, or a few large ones, the result will ultimately be satisfyingly the same.

TechnoMage (profile) says:

'Via Apps' means NOTHING TO ME

As someone who teaches Android development… I can pretty much guarantee that they won’t make an Android App.

The APK (binary) would be ripped out of the device (whatever it is) so fast… de-compiled… and then inspected SOO FAST that it would make the cable installer’s head spin.

Then those new APKs would be able to be ‘upgraded’ with functionality that Comcast/etc. want you to pay for otherwise… such as recording shows…(or whatever they come up with), etc.

Uhh… you know what…

Nevermnid… I mean an Android App would be ideal, it would be perfectly secure, no one would abuse it, and it would let you put whatever restrictions you want on it… I promise…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: 'Via Apps' means NOTHING TO ME

True, but you still need to have their box in order to use the app. With the DirectTv app, for example, you need to be attached to the same wireless network as their box is.

How, exactly, am I better off for having a app to use? It changes absolutely nothing about the STB requirement.

TechDescartes (profile) says:

Simply Not True. Or Is It?

But like so much said about the FCC’s plan over the last seven months, that’s simply not true. Karl Bode (Sep. 8, 2016)

Stories with “FCC” and “simply not true” don’t bode well:

It should be noted that some net neutrality critics are running around and claiming that these new rules mean the death of the internet, and will lead to the government deciding what content and services are allowed on the internet. If true, that would be an attack on the open internet, but it’s simply not true. Don’t worry too much about it. That’s just FUD. Mike Masnick (Mar. 4, 2015)

Who knew that “FUD” meant “free unrated data”? “Net neutrality” rules were passed, but they zero-rated their way right around that speed bump. Just plan on a “cable box rule” passing, followed by some “innovation” that costs consumers more. Remember, this is the FCC that were talking about:

Once upon a time, FCC Commissioners were engineers, thinkers and experts across a variety of fields. These days the well-lobbied agency’s stable of Commissioners is populated exclusively with lawyers, politicians and revolving-door lobbyists, and as you might expect — its primary product (no matter which party is in control) is quite often partisan bickering and broken policy. Karl Bode (Apr. 15, 2010)

Tread carefully.

Anonymous Coward says:

I'm getting sick of this crap

There is literally NO LAW, NONE!, being passed today that actually benefit real live AMERICAN CITIZENS.

Every damned law, EVERY SINGLE ONE, is a sellout to corporations, unions, or other powerful entities.

Nothing, NOTHING that just benefits citizens ever makes it through without being corrupted and ruined by powerful lobbying interests.

I am sick of this crap.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I'm getting sick of this crap

There is literally NO LAW, NONE!, being passed today
> that actually benefit real live AMERICAN CITIZENS.

Elizabeth Warren got her Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) passed into law in the face of immense pressure. And just today they extracted $185M in fines from Wells Fargo and, more importantly, got 5300 corrupt employees fired.

Personanongrata says:

Cable Sucks and So Do the Bought and Paid for Wind Bags infesting Congress

After Massive Cable Industry Lobbying And Disinformation Effort, The FCC Is Forced To Weaken Its Cable Box Reform Plan

If FCC could regulate Ma Bell and help put an end to telephone rental fees that were once levied on it’s customers then FCC has the authority to regulate the cable industry’s cable set top box gravy train.

The only thing lacking is the will to do so.

Link from the New York Times decades before the Gray Lady sold out and became a propaganda rag for the US government.

ECA (profile) says:

Dear young people

Im sorry to all you younger folk, for the idiocy of we older folk.
For some reason, NONE of us have ever gained any basic knowledge of TECH..
WE have also forgotten HOW cable TV used to be..
Im sorry because I dont EVEN think these folks, know HOW cars USED to work, NOW work, or SHOULD work..
I dont think these folks know HOW to balance a Check book, let alone ANYthing about Economy 101..
Dont think we are ALL dummies… its just those you have elected.(we stopped voting years ago)

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