FCC Violates Basic Legal Principles in Rush to Regulate Set-Top Boxes

by Berin Szoka, President of TechFreedom

WASHINGTON D.C. — Today, the FCC voted on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would force pay-tv or multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to change their existing equipment to allow third-party set-top boxes to carry their signals. Currently, MVPD subscribers typically pay $15–20/month to lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite, or telco video provider. Those set-top boxes allow subscribers to view video programming on their TVs and, in some cases, also provide access to online video distributors (OVDs) such as Netflix and Hulu. However, Chairman Wheeler and some interest groups say those leasing fees are too high, that MVPDs have a stranglehold on video programming, and that the set-top box market must be opened to competition from third parties.

“Regulating set-top boxes may do serious damage to video programmers, especially small ones and those geared to minorities,” said Berin Szoka. “That’s why Congressional Democrats, minority groups and other voices have urged caution. Yet FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler blithely dismisses these concerns, insisting that ‘this is just the beginning of a fact-finding process.’ Do not believe him. If that were true, the FCC would issue a Notice of Inquiry to gather data to inform a regulatory proposal. Instead, the FCC has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. That means the FCC Chairman has already made up his mind, and that the agency is unlikely to adjust course.”

This is simply the latest example of the FCC abusing the rulemaking process by bypassing the Notice of Inquiry,” concluded Szoka. “Every time the FCC does this, it means the gun is already loaded, and ‘fact-finding’ is a mere formality. It’s high time Congress put a stop to this pretense of objectivity and require the FCC to begin all major rulemakings with an NOI. That key reform was at the heart of an FCC reform bill initially proposed by Republicans in 2013 — but, tellingly, removed at the insistence of Congressional Democrats.”

The FCC’s proposal is based on the recommendations of the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (“DSTAC”), which was directed to investigate this issue by Congress in the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014.

The FCC is also abusing the advisory committee process — once again,” argued Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at TechFreedom. “The Commission acts as if the DSTAC unanimously supported the NPRM’s proposal. In fact, the DSTAC recommended two alternative approaches, only one of which was taken up by the FCC. This is only the most recent example of the FCC abusing the advisory committee process, denying broad input from stakeholders and steering the committee to issue recommendations that suit the administration’s policy preferences. The FCC should have used an NOI to seek comment on both the DSTAC recommendations. But at the very least, Chairman Wheeler should drop his absurd pretense that the FCC is merely beginning a fact-finding process.”

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Originally published at techfreedom.org.