FCC moves to open up the set-top box market

Who doesn’t want more competition in the set-top box market -- that little box next to our TVs that most of us rent from our cable or satellite provider to access pay TV programs? On average, US families spend $231 per year on set-top box rentals. And 99 percent of us rent the box from our cable or satellite company.

The FCC has initiated a rulemaking designed to give consumers alternatives to the cable and satellite companies’ set-top box. That’s a good thing. But the devil is in the details, and the debate is shaping up to be a battle between corporate titans: Google on one side, Comcast on the other. Google wants in so that it can get its hands on lots of data about your video viewing habits which it will use to sell ads targeted to you. Comcast wants to preserve the lucrative revenue stream it earns from its set-top box rentals. The FCC’s rules could favor one business model over another, so it’s important to dig deep to make sure the outcome benefits consumers.

A key issue appears to be privacy. The FCC regulates cable and satellite companies, but it doesn’t regulate Google. The FCC’s rules prohibit cable and satellite companies from selling information they gather about your viewing habits to third parties. But the FCC doesn’t have the authority to prohibit such practices by a Google set-top box or online app. So, the FCC’s current proposal would require the pay-TV company -- Comcast, for example -- to make sure that Google’s set-top box protects viewers’ privacy. Comcast policing Google -- doesn’t sound very likely.

That’s just one of a number of issues the FCC will explore over the coming months. Minority programmers are concerned that their programming might get buried under a Google-type proposal. What about the contracts that pay-TV companies have with programmers? Who owns the software that controls the menus you see and the ways you navigate through video programming? How much of this intellectual property should cable and satellite providers be required to make available to others? Speed Matters will stay on top of these and other issues as the set-top box debate unfolds.

FCC Moves to “Unlock the Box” to Spur Competition, Choice, & Innovation in Set-Top Box and App Marketplace (FCC, Feb. 18, 2016)


Future of TV: FCC Set-Top Item is Google Gift (Multichannel.com, Feb. 18, 2016)


Washington wants your cable company to become a whole new privacy cop (Washington Post, FEb. 19, 2016)