US Congress asks FCC to snuff out Google's TV landgrab

It's dead already, Congresscritters argue

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Americans will be stuck with the antiquated 1990s CableCARD access standard for a little longer. Republicans in US Congress yesterday urged the FCC to snuff out its radical (and secret) set top box proposal, which has been in limbo since November.

The proposal, advanced by former FCC chief Tom Wheeler in his frantic final months, pitted the TV and movie industries against Big Tech and the "consumer groups" it funds, bypassing formal comment procedures. The details remain a mystery since Wheeler's FCC took it permanently out of open government ("Sunshine") scrutiny.

In a letter [PDF] to the new FCC chief Ajit Pai, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn said the proposal was dead in any case, yet remained a threat to quality AV production, particularly for minority audiences. Formally killing the Set Top Box plan would bring certainty to video creators.

Ironically, Wheeler's unsuccessful scheme to "kill the set box" plan would have taken longer to implement than the consensus-backed approach he opposed.

CableCARD was designed in the 1990s around the PCMCIA standard. In 2014, as part of updating the STELA legislation, Congress had asked the FCC to come up with a modern replacement within 18 months. The FCC's technical committee charged with the job, DSTAC, came up with a spec based around HTML5 and other modern TV and IP standards. It was an "all apps, software only" proposal.

However, a vaguer, alternative proposal around a "virtual head end", which would have required a Chromecast-style dongle, was filed by Google, Amazon, Hauppage and Public Knowledge [PDF].

The difference, the AV industry argued, was that the alternative proposal allowed distributors (like YouTube) to "disaggregate" content, allowing YouTube to pick and choose what content it wanted to distribute without paying for it. Wheeler backed the Google-y Plan B, which gained the noisy support of tech industry groups like Public Knowledge, through two further secret drafts. Democrats lined up with Republicans to oppose Wheeler.

At the eleventh hour, Wheeler even promised [PDF] to create a copyright licensing board at the FCC to micromanage disputes – but that only increased concerns that the FCC was overstepping its remit and inserting itself into commercial intellectual property deals. Only Congress can permit compulsory licensing, which is the appropriation of property.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the swing vote, was not convinced that pick-and-mix safeguarded the USA's $200bn AV industry, and declined to support it. The set top box effectively went into a terminal coma that day.

Pai has experience of forging bipartisan consensus (on his rural broadband initiative) and, more importantly, a mandate to cut red tape and stop the FCC's mission creep. It's unlikely anything so ambitious will be attempted again soon. ®


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