Lawmakers weigh in on FCC set-top box changes

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Lawmakers are weighing in on the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to reform market rules for TV set-top boxes, just days before the agency votes on the issue.

The plan would give users more flexibility in choosing their set-top box, and last week has seen a flurry of letters from members of Congress both supporting the plan and urging the commission to move cautiously. 

“First and foremost, injecting new competition into the marketplace will save consumers money and pave the way for innovative retail alternatives to set-top boxes leased by pay-TV providers,” said a group of lawmakers led by Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler supporting the plan.

The proposal by Wheeler could ultimately lead to new rules governing the boxes through which consumers access their pay-TV service. Wheeler has proposed draft rules that would require the TV providers to open up their video feeds to other companies, like Google, that might want to manufacture their own boxes. Though the commission is expected to vote on Thursday to formally consider the plan, adopting the rules would require another vote. 

The proposal has angered the pay-TV industry, and some powerful lawmakers have suggested they are skeptical of Wheeler’s approach.

“While I support the objective of enabling competition and innovation in the market for set-top boxes, any new FCC rules in this area must not harm the production and distribution of video content,” said Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonOvernight Finance: Senate rejects funding bill as shutdown looms | Labor Dept. to probe Wells Fargo | Fed to ease stress test rules for small banks Overnight Energy: Judges scrutinize Obama climate rule Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears MORE (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a letter last week. “The FCC’s rules should not allow third-parties to do more with programming content than has been done through negotiated arrangements between content owners and their partners.”

Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn ThuneOvernight Tech: Lawmakers, tech talk diversity | Group raises security worries over internet handoff | FCC commish wants probe into debate Wi-Fi Reid blocks Thune tech bill over FCC nomination fight Overnight Tech: Tech pushes for debate spotlight | Disney may bid for Twitter | Dem seeks Yahoo probe MORE (R-S.D.) has said that though he does not have a strong position on the issue, he said he thinks “this is one of those places where the market is working."

A group of House lawmakers, led by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.), sent a letter to Wheeler on Tuesday to say they are “concerned about the implications of this proposal for the nearly two million Americans who work to produce America’s film and television content — particularly independent creators and those creating minority focused and religious programming."

Industry groups have said they worry about the effect the proposal will have on minority programmers, as well as the privacy implications of having tech companies producing set-top boxes. 

“We also understand that some have suggested that Commission action would threaten diverse programming and harm minority voices,” Eshoo’s group said. “We believe competitive alternatives to the rented set-top box will in fact enhance opportunities for independent programmers to reach consumers by improving search functionality and user interfaces.” 

The proposal could upend a reliable revenue stream for cable, satellite and telecommunication companies. The majority of Americans who subscribe to pay-TV rent their boxes from their provider generated about $20 billion in revenue yearly for those companies.

Many in the industry favor an approach centered on applications that could deliver content to viewers through an Internet connection.