By Sahil Patel
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wants to expand the definition of a “multi-channel video programming distributor” to include internet-TV services in an effort to boost competition and consumer choice in the industry.
In a proposal he’s making to FCC commissioners, as outlined by a blog post on FCC.gov, Wheelers is calling for a “technology-neutral” definition of an MVPD. “The result of this technical adjustment will be to give MVPDs that use the internet (or any other method of transmission) the same access to programming owned by cable operators and the same ability to negotiate to carry broadcast TV stations that Congress gave to satellite systems in order to ensure competitive video markets,” he said.
It’s difficult for a new player in the MVPD space to establish a foothold dominated by cable and satellite services, and once entirely dominated by cable services. By governing internet-based TV services — like those being developed by Sony, Dish, and Verizon — the same way that existing TV distributors like Comcast and Verizon are, the FCC would ensure that its own rules are not blocking competition and consumer choice.
“A key component of rules that spur competition is assuring the FCC’s rules are technology-neutral,” said Wheeler. “That’s why the definition of an MVPD should turn on the services that a provider offers, not on how those services reach viewers. Twenty-first century consumers shouldn’t be shackled to rules that only recognize 20th century technology.”
While designed for any service that offers linear programming — pre-scheduled, which means this does not apply to on-demand services like Netflix — the new rules could also cover standalone services being launched by CBS, HBO, and any other TV network in the future.
It could also help Aereo*, which was recently dealt a pretty-much-fatal blow by the US Courts. Wheeler referenced a recent meeting with Aereo, when the company asked him to explore a change in the definition of an MVPD. Aereo, which delivered live broadcast programming over the web, argued that the inclusion of internet-based delivery systems would pave the way for new MVPD services to launch, and as a result, give consumers greater access to different types of programming packages. This way, “perhaps consumers will not be forced to pay for channels they never watch,” said Wheeler.
What’s more, Wheeler’s proposal would also guarantee that a cable system would continue to be regulated as a cable system, even if it moves to IP-based delivery.
And it might spur competition in the broadband space, which is also dominated by cable companies. “Those seeking to deploy new competitive broadband networks tell us that it’s hard to provide new high-speed internet access without also being able to offer a competitive video package as well,” said Wheeler. “An updated definition of MVPD would permit a new broadband competitor to offer customers the ability to reach a variety of OTT video packages without necessarily having to enter the video business itself.”
To be fair, there are other elements of Aereo’s business that it would need to resolve before it has a chance for survival. This certainly would help, though.