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FCC cable set-top rules headed for regulatory graveyard

The Republican-led FCC is no longer considering rules that would have ended cable set-top box rental fees.

Former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler (L) speaks as then FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (R) looks on during a hearing before Senate subcommittee on Capitol Hill.
Alex Wong, Getty Images

Government rules that would put an end to set-top box rental fees are likely dead.

Ahead of the agency's open meeting Tuesday, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, removed the proposed rules from a list of items to be considered by the FCC. At a press conference following the agency's open meeting, Pai wouldn't comment on whether the FCC would revise the proposal and reintroduce it for a vote. Instead, he said the agency is still reviewing the rules along with the 22 other items left over from the previous administration.

The set-top box rules, which had been pushed by former Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler, would have forced cable companies to allow third-party set-top box makers to develop products that access cable TV streams, eliminating the need for consumers to rent a set-top from their cable operator. The FCC had said when introducing the rules nearly a year ago that consumers pay on average $231 a year in rental fees to cable operators for the boxes. Democrats on the FCC said at the time that the new rules would open this market, so that consumers could buy devices from retailers or could use apps to get to cable content.

But critics, such as the cable companies and Roku, a maker of streaming-video devices, argued an FCC mandate on set-top boxes could add costs, threaten consumer privacy and hurt smaller content producers.

The new rules had been up for a vote in September, well before the presidential election that threw Democrats out of power. At least one Democrat at the agency had concerns and wanted more time to consider the rules. Now that the rules have been removed from a list of items for the FCC's consideration, it's unlikely the current proposal will ever come up for a vote.

That's not surprising. As a commissioner on the FCC when the proposal was first introduced last year, Pai, who was appointed chairman by President Donald Trump last week, opposed the rules, stating there was no need for rules given that cable providers were already offering access to the TV service via apps.

Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who had been appointed by Barack Obama, criticized the move, calling it a victory for "Cablewood over consumers." He also took a jab at Trump on Twitter. "$200 million Pai Tax on helpless cable subs. Trump helping little guy??"

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