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Set-top boxes

The FCC & TV Apps: It's Complicated

The FCC hasn't released a new iteration of its set-top box proposal yet, but already industry advocates are weighing in with complaints.

Pay-TV providers have repeatedly argued that they can improve competition in the retail set-top market by making apps with their services available to third-party device manufacturers. This has the double benefit of extending the reach of pay-TV services while also keeping the user experience under the control of multichannel video distributors (MVPDs).

However, opponents to that approach, including many Internet and consumer electronics companies, contend that MVPDs should also be forced to share information about their services that allow third parties to create their own user interfaces and deliver new types of viewing experiences based around a pay-TV provider's content. (See Ditch the Box? It's Code for Keep the UI.)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initially sided with Internet and CE companies when it issued its "Unlock the Box" proposal last February. However since then, the Commission has come under significant political pressure to soften its stance, and advocates on both sides of the argument have issued their own proposals and counter-proposals hoping to push the agency toward a compromise ruling. (See CCIA Counter-Attacks on Set-Top Proposal.)

While the FCC hasn't announced any revised proposal yet, it is expected to do so. And now, both the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) with AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) have posted ex parte filings that comment on recent conversations with the FCC and hint at a strategy that the agency is considering.

In both filings, there is discussion of a new licensing body proposed by the FCC. The NCTA/AT&T filing specifically notes that the licensing body would "establish and enforce a single license for MVPD apps." That suggests that the FCC is now leaning toward an apps-based solution, but that it wants to give control over app availability not to the pay-TV providers themselves, but to a third-party organization.


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The NCTA and the NAB have some serious misgivings about the creation of a new licensing body. They worry that the proposal would try to standardize licensing in a market where pay-TV providers and programmers currently make individual business deals controlling which content and functionality is available on which devices.

The NCTA (with AT&T) in particular is also worried about the possibility that the FCC would require pay-TV providers to support so-called native apps on different device platforms rather than just HTML5 apps. Roku Inc. and others have argued that native apps are more efficient and enable more features, making them preferable in many cases to web apps based on HTML5. (See Roku: HTML5 No Panacea for TV Apps.)

The NAB is slightly more sanguine about the idea of native apps, but it argues that "the Commission must ensure that the modified plan does not disrupt the protections programmers have in place through private agreements with MVPDs."

In other words, the NAB may be okay with native apps, but only if programmers and pay-TV providers still have the freedom to negotiate their own deals about what to make available on different device platforms.

The FCC could unveil a new proposal as early as this week. The next open meeting by the Commission -- during which a proposal could be voted on -- is scheduled for September 29.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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