Finding Common Ground on Set-top Boxes
By Bill Lake
FCC Media Bureau Chief
There has been a lot of focus recently on how the Federal Communications Commission and the MVPD industry differ on key policy issues. But there are many things we agree on. In the set-top box proceeding, for example, the cable industry and I agree about several key points.
We agree that a subscriber should be able to access cable service without having to rent a set-top box from her cable operator. We agree that protecting against theft of service is essential, not just because the statute requires it, but also because it is the right thing to do. We agree that, if a consumer chooses to use a competitive navigation solution, she should be able to access all of the channels that she pays for—a competitive solution should not relegate any programming to the bottom of the heap simply because a programmer is unaffiliated with the competitive solution’s developer. We agree that FCC action should not interfere with the existing business arrangements between MVPDs and content providers. And we agree that some MVPDs have been developing new technologies to meet consumers’ needs, such as accessible programming guides, cloud-based DVR functionality and making their apps available on select third-party devices.
The video marketplace is in rapid transformation, offering consumers options they’ve never had before and requiring new thinking by the industry and regulators alike. We all agree that the current CableCARD regime is not sustainable as MVPDs upgrade their networks to IP. We also agree that government-mandated equipment or a technology standard that will quickly become outdated is not the answer.
Where we haven’t yet come together is what CableCARD’s replacement should look like. I believe that consumers should have a wide range of options when choosing how to access their video content, just as they do when they sign up for phone service. Unfortunately, today consumers’ choices are limited.
I believe the goals of Section 629 of the Communications Act will be satisfied only when competitive device or app makers have access to the information they need to provide consumers a meaningful choice, rather than relying on MVPDs to dictate the terms of access. Making this information available to competitive innovators does not mean that MVPDs must sacrifice the integrity or security of their programming. The set-top box proposal in no way diminishes the ability of MVPDs and programmers to protect their content from misuse.
It is our hope that Commission action promoting competition with and among unaffiliated developers will unleash the creativity and innovation that consumers deserve. I am not naive enough to believe that the Commission can adopt navigation device rules that all interested parties will consider perfect. I do believe that if we maintain an open dialogue and keep open minds, however, we can achieve an approach that respects the interests of the cable industry, the content creators, companies that wish to develop competitive methods to access multichannel video programming, and above all the consumers we all seek to serve.
Bill Lake is chief of the Media Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission. Before joining the Commission he was a partner in the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, where he led the firm’s communications and electronic commerce practice.