A few weeks ago, the chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, suggested that it was time for the government to take action to open up the set-top box marketplace in order to provide customers with more choices through competition. I was intrigued – after all, Wheeler is Mr. Net Neutrality – so for him to suddenly be in favor of the free market was a big deal.
As it turns out, however, his proposal is a bit like a wolf in sheep’s clothing; Wheeler’s just cottoned on to the fact that he needs to use the right language to get through his big government ideas. (As Frank Luntz would say, these are the words that work.)
In an article on Re/Code, Wheeler said, “let’s let innovators create, and then let consumers choose.”
Well, Mr. Chairman: innovators have been creating for years – which means that your proposal is a day late and a dollar short. Sure, a competitor to the set top box (Aereo) failed a few years ago – but since then, things like Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire were released, and have been wildly successful. Content providers like HBO and Netflix now provide content directly to consumers, who can watch shows on phones and tablets without ever needing a traditional TV-cable box setup. Consumers have more choices than ever. Is that, perhaps, the problem then – that the FCC has become a bit irrelevant?
Larry Downes had a terrific piece at the Washington Post recently that outlines the folly of this latest effort – as well as the FCC’s dismal track record at regulating from behind the eight ball. My favorite part:
The FCC is fiddling while Rome burns—and it’s a fire the agency regularly stokes by continuing to regulate pay TV under the groaning mass of rules that stopped making sense at least a decade ago.
If the commission really wants to see more consumer choice in the content market, it should abandon once and for all any thoughts of leveling the playing field by subjecting the disruptors to the same mess. And, at the same time, free the existing regulated industry to, well, compete. But developing more Washington-based technology mandates for an industry in the midst of widespread technological disruption? Well, that might be the worst idea the agency has had yet. That is, since the last time it tried to do it.
Tech Freedom’s Tom Struble notes, “It’s clear that politics is behind the FCC’s push for a set-top box mandate. As the debate over net neutrality and Title II demonstrated, the FCC is perfectly comfortable with picking winners and losers in the marketplace.”
The tech sector is one of the few vibrant spots in the American economy. The less the FCC interferes with it, the better.