Advocacy Groups Want Rulemaking On Set-Top Boxes Combining On-Screen, Online Video

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Taking a cue from the Federal Communications Commission's avowed interest in a new set-top box regime that would combine online and on-screen video, public advocacy groups, including Public Knowledge and Media Access Project, want the FCC to open a rulemaking on the issue and freeze current industry waiver requests in the interim.

That would be a way to slow the FCC's grant of set-tops that ordinarily would have run afoul of the FCC's rules against devices that combine surfing and security functions. The FCC has begun granting those waivers for boxes with HD functionality, something that those groups oppose because they argue that works against the premise of the ban on integrated set-tops, which is to create a retail market.

"The current FCC rules have left consumers with few good choices, have frustrated would-be competitors and have left a market that could be full of potential innovations in the hands of the cable industry," said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge. "Our approach is that the Commission should stop what its doing, start over, and create something useful. The FCC acknowledges that the current rules are not working, and our proposal would help them achieve what Congress intended."

The FCC has asked for comment on what new set-tops for a converging online/onscreen video world would look like, conceding its effort to spur a retail market has fallen short.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has welcomed the FCC's recent signal that integrated HD set-top waivers would be given a warm reception. That's because it has argued since the ban was imposed that it was not an effective way to spur competition.

NCTA has already asked the FCC to open a "broad inquiry" into ways to spur that market for devices that work across all platforms.

"We agree that current rules have not facilitated a vibrant retail marketplace for video devices," said NCTA president and CEO Kyle McSlarrow. "We also agree that today's marketplace is nothing like the ‘cable-centric' world that existed when the statute was adopted. We stand ready to work with the Commission and all stakeholders on these complex issues."

NCTA was not supportive of freezing waiver requests.

"Approval of the waivers has benefitted consumers by enabling cable to go all digital, which frees up bandwidth that can then be used to offer faster broadband, more HD channels and other interactive services," said NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz. "Every other video provider has already moved to an all-digital platform so the Commission's review of the video device marketplace should not halt cable's effort to maximize its bandwidth to the benefit of consumers."