Cutting short what promised to be a very long open Commission meeting, the FCC announced less than an hour before start time this morning that it would take the much-anticipated vote for the Set-Top Box Order off the day's agenda.
The news was a surprise not only to industry observers, but to some Commissioners as well. In a question-and-answer session following the formal meeting, Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said he learned of the delay at the same time fellow Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai was told. "They called us just before the meeting to say that it was going to get pulled," said O'Rielly.
The fight over what's now being called the Set-Top Box Order has been long and nasty. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler initially released a proposal calling for service providers to give access to their video streams to third-party companies so that those companies could create alternative user experiences around pay-TV content on their own retail hardware. (See 'Unlock the Box' Vote Is Just the Beginning.)
When that proved unpalatable, however, a revised proposal was released recommending an apps-based strategy for moving pay-TV content to new devices. The revised proposal, and the one that was scheduled for vote today, is more in line with what service providers have lobbied for. However, it includes an added provision stating that the apps process would need to be standardized and overseen by a licensing body. Pay-TV providers and programmers are vehemently against that addition. (See FCC's New Pay-TV Plan: Shove It Up Your App.)
Going into today's meeting, industry observers appeared not to know how the set-top vote was likely to turn out. Commissioners Wheeler and Mignon Clyburn have supported the order, but fellow Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has expressed concern. Informal discussions this week at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo conference suggested that many were unsure about how Rosenworcel would ultimately vote.
In a statement regarding the vote delay, Commissioners Wheeler, Clyburn and Rosenworcel said:
"It's time for consumers to say goodbye to costly set-top boxes. It's time for more ways to watch and more lower-cost options. That's why we have been working to update our policies under Section 629 of the Communications Act in order to foster a competitive market for these devices. We have made tremendous progress -- and we share the goal of creating a more innovative and inexpensive market for these consumer devices. We are still working to resolve the remaining technical and legal issues and we are committed to unlocking the set-top box for consumers across this country."
Wheeler later elaborated saying that delaying the vote was "simply a matter of running out of time. The set-top box item remains on circulation, remains in deliberation among the consumers."
Reaction from the industry was swift and predictable.
From cable-lobbying group the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) :
"We are pleased that the FCC has chosen to delay consideration of its set-top box item, and hope that additional time will lead to meaningful public review and comment on any newly-crafted proposal under consideration. Our industry is committed to a future where viewers have the freedom to watch their favorite shows on a wide variety of tablets, streaming consoles, smartphones and other connected devices. We will continue our efforts to innovate in the marketplace to expand consumer choice, promote market innovation, protect the rights of content holders, and respect consumer privacy."
"Competition is the law, and the FCC has an obligation to continue working toward solutions that bring real choice, innovation and lower prices to consumers. The members of the commission are smart, well intentioned, and we believe they will find common ground that will open the market and promote innovation. For competition to rise, the set-top box monopoly must fall, and we look forward to working with all members of the FCC toward this shared goal."
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading