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AT&T, Comcast Oppose U.S. Plan for More Set-Top Box Competition

  • FCC approach would chill innovation, companies say in filing
  • Agency looking to break cable’s hold on the set-top box

AT&T Inc. and cable companies led by Comcast Corp. are fighting a U.S. proposal to set terms for licensing new devices that would compete with traditional set-top boxes and let consumers view pay-TV shows.

The approach would “have the effect of chilling innovation” in developing methods for consumers to access pay-TV programming, DirecTV owner AT&T and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade group that includes Comcast, the biggest U.S. cable provider, said in a filing Tuesday to the Federal Communications Commission.

The agency is considering ways to break cable companies’ hold on a set-top box market valued at about $20 billion annually. The proposal being developed by Chairman Tom Wheeler could face a vote at a Sept. 29 meeting.

Wheeler has said subscribers “essentially have no choices” but to pay an average of $231 yearly to rent boxes from cable and satellite TV providers. The FCC said it wants to allow competing software and devices, and the White House has called the proposal a step to save families money.

Kim Hart, an FCC spokeswoman, declined to comment on the proposal and companies’ response.

Internet Apps

Cable providers and AT&T in June offered to let subscribers watch shows on third-party devices through internet apps that conform to an industry standard.

In the Tuesday filing, Dallas-based AT&T and the Washington-based cable trade group described what they called “the new concept of a central licensing body that would establish and enforce a single license” for programming over apps. The idea doesn’t reflect how licensing is handled today, because programmers don’t offer uniform rights across all devices and uses, according to the filing.

Representatives of AT&T, Charter Communications Inc., Comcast and the NCTA trade group raised “significant legal, policy, and practical objections” at a Sept. 1 meeting with FCC staff, according to the Tuesday filing. “The licensing body concept would slow innovation” because changes “would presumably have to be approved by the licensing body and reviewed by the commission,” according to the filing.

Broadcasters, who have an interest because their shows reach viewers via cable, earlier said the FCC is considering “a licensing and certification regime that device manufacturers must meet in order to run the app.”

“Its updated proposal will unequivocally fail if there is a possibility of governmental or other third-party intervention” in programming rights, the National Association of Broadcasters said in a Sept. 2 filing.