Comcast-backed NCTA digs in for fight over set-top box reforms

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Michael Powell, the CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, warned that the FCC proposal could lead to TV subscribers having two set-top boxes instead of just one.

Michael Powell and the Comcast-backed National Cable & Telecommunications Association on Thursday rejected the federal government's plan to reform the $20-billion set-top box industry as illegal and unconstitutional.

The FCC would be outside its authority with the proposed reforms, Powell said in a Washington press conference, adding that the agency can't "roam around" and fix problems.

NCTA-aligned lawyers said that concerns over the proposal include copyright and trademark violations, and consumer privacy.

FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart said the regulatory agency's proposal is based on a "clear mandate" from Congress to "ensure a competitive marketplace" with set-top boxes.

As the FCC's proposal regards  copyright protections for TV and movie studios, Hart said that "copyright protections and remedies will remain fully intact."

The set-top boxes, or apps, envisioned by the FCC are expected to meld traditional TV programming and streaming services onto one interface. Hart said that when "consumers are able to access all their content in a single place, they will be better able to find programming most relevant to them." 

Set-top box reform is developing into a big Washington political story. In a blog posting last week, President Obama's White House advisors backed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal, saying the set-top box industry needs new competition.

Many Americans lease a set-top box for about $230 a year. The boxes are considered a profit center for Comcast and other pay-TV companies. 

The cable industry has said that Internet search engine giant Google has the ear of Obama and Wheeler and has been pushing the set-top box reforms so that it can develop a box and sell advertisments around TV channel searches.

The FCC proposal will allow companies, such as Google, to "monetize to great profit somebody else's private property," Powell said. The NCTA is the pay-TV industry's trade association and Comcast is one of its largest dues-paying members.

On Wednesday, the Future of TV Coalition said it delivered 70,000 petitions to the FCC from opponents of the reforms. 

Also on Wednesday, Comcast announced that it would develop app technology so that its subscribers would not need a set-top box, thus eliminating the need for reforms as proposed by the FCC.

An FCC official said that based on information now available it does not appear that that the Comcast app technology will meld the traditional TV programming and streaming services. 

An FCC deadline for public comments on its set-top reforms is Friday.

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