How delays might derail set-top box reform
You may be asking yourself how the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to eliminate the outrageous cable set-top box monopoly ripping off millions of consumers could be stopped. You may even be asking yourself this as you review your latest burgeoning cable bill.
Welcome to the world of Washington politics, where the most powerful industries like cable and Hollywood spend millions of dollars on Congress and the policymaking process to get their way. Not only are consumers and citizens who just want fairness and competition in the marketplace outgunned, but they face the clever political strategies that enable powerful monopolies and corporate giants to block the public interest without being held accountable to consumers.
How does this happen? The set-top box fight may be shaping up to be a prime example of how policymakers who don’t want to anger their constituents can protect corporate interests without ever having to officially come out against consumers. You just delay a regulatory process so that the clock runs out and the FCC doesn’t have the opportunity to vote to explode the set-top box monopoly.
This summer, and even now, we’ve seen the elements of this strategy play out. After Chairman Wheeler proposed rules to eliminate the set-top box monopoly and hundreds of thousands of consumers cheered the effort, House Representatives passed a spending bill prohibiting the FCC from completing new rules this year. Soon after, the Senate Appropriations Committee did something similar. Of course, they never outright said that they’re against competition or more choices for consumers; they just label the issue as “very complicated,” or they “have concerns,” or just say whatever they can think of to justify telling the FCC to take more time and not end this consumer rip-off in 2016.
Recently, Chairman Wheeler came forward with adjustments to his proposal designed to address many of the concerns raised by cable monopolies, Hollywood and some policymakers. Cable got an apps-based plan and Hollywood got its copyrights protected even more. Wheeler then suggested that the Commission vote on the proposal September 29.
So we’re done, right? Not so fast!
Over the next two weeks, you can expect to see a barrage of criticism, misleading advertisements, bogus copyright claims backed by millions of dollars in cable and Hollywood lobbying, and a massive display of spin. Again, cable and Hollywood will never outright say they’re against competition, but somehow this proposal is always too complicated, won’t work as intended, and fails to do something or other that should force policymakers to delay.
But why would cable and Hollywood repeatedly call for a delay? Because then any FCC Commissioners still debating the merits won’t have to risk voting to anger the cable monopolies or Hollywood giants. It also enables these Commissioners to say to consumers, “I feel your pain and will vote on this issue only if and when we finally figure out all these complicated details.” Naturally, many on Capitol Hill can echo these sentiments, claiming to defend consumers while cable companies and Hollywood keep offering them campaign contributions. It’s all just too perfect — no fingerprints, no hard votes, and nothing to show for all these months and years of deliberation. It’s just another day in Washington to them.
Unfortunately, it’s the consumers who end up hosed, paying more than $200/year to support cable’s ridiculous set-top box monopoly.
You may be wondering where the White House is in all this. Didn’t the President come out for set-top box competition? Didn’t he also issue an Executive Order requesting all his agency heads move forward on pro-competitive rules like this one? Well, yes, those are both true. But will the White House actually stand firm?
You’re not the only one curious about what the White House might do to promote competition for consumers. Don’t think cable and Hollywood haven’t also considered the President’s impact. They press their misinformation campaign there as well, galvanize all the players within the Administration who always support the interests of monopoly “rightsholders” to weigh in, and hope to stalemate the Executive Branch with internal disputes. By now this strategy should sound familiar — they’re pushing for a delay, asking the White House to take more time to think about what the few content maximalists within the Administration keep yammering about.
So here we are, either two weeks away from the FCC finally moving forward to break the cable box monopoly, or another delay. Stay tuned to see what happens, or dive right in and help us peel back the disinformation and stealth by demanding FCC action and no Congressional interference!
Gene Kimmelman is the President and CEO of Public Knowledge. This article was originally posted on the Public Knowledge web site.