Big telco proxies go full crazy over cable box plan

It's Obama and Google! We're losing money!

The decision by the FCC to tackle the national rip-off that is cable boxes has entered crazy land with the publication of the proposed rules and formal backing by the Obama administration.

A public comment period has formally opened on the proposal [PDF] to force cable companies to adopt a standard format for their information streams and provide it to third parties so they can build competing boxes.

That opening was accompanied by a slew of contributed articles slamming the proposal, but a letter from the Department of Commerce (DoC) supporting the proposal and a blog post published on the White House website has sent the issue into the demented land of partisan politics.

"It is simply bewildering that President Obama would come out in support of the FCC's controversial proposal to change the way we watch television at home. The FCC's set-top box proposal raises serious issues about privacy and data collection of children's viewing habits," raves the Digital Citizens Alliance.

"These are issues the White House has expressed concern about in the past, but seems to ignore now."

Ignoring the fact that it is not, of course, President Obama personally that is supporting the proposal, the Digital Citizens Alliance clearly did not read the formal letter from the DoC to the FCC's comment period before it hit the yell button.

In that letter, assistant commerce secretary Larry Strickling specifically highlights the issue of privacy and data collection and asks how the FCC proposes to enforce compliance with data protection rules and under what legal authority.

Best form of defense

Why is the Alliance so riled up? It probably has something to do with the attack strategy devised behind the scenes by Big Telco to paint the issue as one of President Obama doing Google's bidding, rather than trying to argue that the hated rented cable boxes are a good deal for the consumer.

The Obama-Google line is repeated in a particularly egregious article by a project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy, Larry Downes, published on tech site Re/code.

Downes makes a series of eyebrow-raising claims, including the particularly wild one that cable companies actually lose money on their rented cable boxes.

He also claims that set-top box manufacturers "have made it clear that they don't actually want the FCC's 'open' standard," hugely inflating a comment from a Roku representative that said the company was not pushing for the standard. Far from opposing the new standard, Roku is simply sitting on the fence because it just struck a deal with cable giant Time Warner to distribute its boxes.

The high prices that consumers paid to rent ancient clunky boxes (they have gone up several times faster than inflation despite being horribly outdated) are "just the pretext for regulation," according to Downes.

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The real "scheme" is to "allow favored companies, notably Google, to offer repackaged content – perhaps with different lineups and alternative, targeted advertising – without having to build their own networks or negotiate complex deals with content powerhouses such as Disney, CBS and Fox."

This is precisely the argument put forward by the telco companies themselves, but as the FCC has explicitly stated, the proposal will ensure that new box manufacturers are not able to replace content providers' ads. The letter from the DoC also notes specifically that it wants the FCC to ensure that ad-swapping is not possible.

Reflecting another telco talking point, Downes rails that the FCC's new rules are unnecessary because cable companies are moving toward using apps anyway – thanks to competition.

Except of course, as the DoC letter points out, those apps – like the cable boxes themselves – are proprietary.

Also going full crazy comes USTelecom President Walter McCormick – US Telecom is a telco industry lobbying group. McCormick is beside himself that the Obama Administration is supporting the proposal.

In righteous, manufactured indignation, he roars: "The Administration's disregard for the integrity of the rulemaking process is appalling. There is no need to mince words. When the president 'calls upon' his appointees and an agency chairman who serves at his pleasure to act in a particular way, he is 'directing' them, and all credibility in the independence of the agency and trust in the administrative process evaporates. The legitimacy of this rulemaking proceeding has now been irreparably compromised."

Real deal

Why the anti-Obama, anti-Google, anti-Wheeler rhetoric rather than a reasoned criticism of the FCC's proposals?

Well, first, because there is good reason to be suspicious of the Obama-Google love-in, as we have highlighted numerous times.

And FCC chair Tom Wheeler, while he no doubt sees an opportunity to tackle many of the issues that have been left to languish due to the FCC's traditional subservient role to Big Telco, has increasingly been using the agency's flaws as a way to drive through an agenda rather than make balanced policy.

As to why these are the arguments over the plan to open up the cable box – well in case it's not obvious, it's because there is no good argument against it. If anything, the giant rip-off that is rented cable boxes should have been ended a decade ago.

And all the Big Telco proxies in the world are not going to make people forget how much they hate paying too much for that big, ugly box. ®

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