Tom Wheeler’s STB Plan Officially Dead

The set-top box proposal offered by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been removed from life support

There’s a glaring absence on the FCC‘s updated list of items on circulation that can be put up for a vote outside of public meanings.

Former Chairman Tom Wheeler’s controversial set-top box plan has been removed from consideration.

The move was widely expected by the new Commission, as its freshly minted Republican Chairman — Ajit Pai — and fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly vehemently fought Wheeler and Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn over a plan that received some applause and loud dissention from industry organizations and lobbyists throughout 2016.

Wheeler’s proposal would have “unlocked” the set-top box used virtually universally by U.S. MVPDs to provide cable television service to residences and businesses. The idea was to create a carousel-like system that would provide access to multiple carriers, breaking the monopolies seen in many DMAs across the U.S. with respect to traditional cable TV services.

The news was first reported late Monday by Law 360, which notes that Chairman Pai has not closed the official set-top box file altogether.

FCC spokesman Mark Whigfield did not immediately respond to RBR + TVBR‘s request for comment. However, Pai told reporters in a post-January Open Meeting press briefing on Tuesday that he is still looking over the Wheeler STB plan. This could mean that elements of Wheeler’s proposal could be incorporated into a new STB plan at some point during Pai’s tenure. If so, chances are it would significantly differ from what Wheeler’s plan sought.

Kathleen A. Kirby, a partner at Wiley Rein LLP, notes that, technically, the proceeding is still open.

“Chairman Pai could circulate a revised proposal,” she says. “Pai is on the record, however, stating that the goal should not be to unlock the box, but to eliminate the box, and that the Commission’s policies should encourage industry efforts to do so, not replace one intrusive regulatory regime with another. It remains to be seen whether he will close the docket after further review.”

The deletion of the set-top box proposal comes after 19 members of the House of Representatives, led by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Energy and Commerce Committee Vice Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), on Jan. 25 formally asked new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to close the docket on the Commission’s all-but-failed set-top box proceeding.

Reaction to the removal of the STB proposal from the items on circulation was mixed.

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Chairman/CEO and U.S. Senator Chris Dodd said the organization applauds Pai’s decision to pull the proposal from circulation.

“As the creative community has made clear from the start, we support competition within the set-top box market, but not at the expense of copyright policy or the livelihoods of millions of American creators,” Dodd said. “We are grateful for the support from more than 200 Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, senior leaders of various government agencies, civil rights and free market organizations, and virtually the entire creative community, including majors and independents, music groups, advocacy organizations, and unions and guilds that collectively represent hundreds of thousands of creative professionals. We are proud to be joined by so many in standing up for copyright and the rights of creators.”

NAB EVP/Communications Dennis Wharton added, “NAB had concerns related to negative consequences of Chairman Wheeler’s set-top box plan for broadcast network programmers. For that reason, we’re pleased that this proposal is being shelved.”

Response on the removal of the STB vote from the FCC’s September 2016 Open Meeting agenda — just 30 minutes before the meeting was set to begin and a vote was to be had — was instantly greeted with praise by the NCTA – The Internet & Television Association. In a statement, the newly renamed organization said in late September , “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.”

NCTA had no comment on the removal from consideration of the STB plan.

The American Cable Association (ACA) also declined to offer immediate comment to RBR + TVBR. However, the ACA had been supportive of a plan “to finally provide consumers with choice in how they access pay-TV service while satisfying Congress’ mandate.”

ACA expressed support of a plan that would eliminate the monthly set-top box rental fee passed on to subscribers, and how an app-based STB would “liberate consumers from set-top boxes.”

ACA also affirmed how the plan would have maintained strong copyright content protections — something Sen. Dodd and the MPAA disagreed on.

Former Chairman Wheeler, in a revision to the proposal, included an exemption for all but a handful of ACA members.