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Trump spells doom for set-top box reforms at FCC, observers say

Donald Trump's election as president has likely killed proposed reforms for the TV set-top boxes that could save consumers billions of dollars, industry observers say.

Trump's deregulatory views combined with difficult politics at the Federal Communications Commission now make it nearly impossible to enact reforms, they say.

Dismantling the FCC's set-top box proposal would benefit Comcast Corp. and other pay-TV operators that earn about $20 billion a year renting the devices to pay-TV subscribers.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable-TV operator, which has invested heavily into its voice-controlled X1 set-top box, had no comment on Monday.

Critics call the set-top boxes a pay-TV monopoly that costs consumers about $230 a year in those rental fees. The changes were designed to bring competition to set-top boxes or do away with the need to rent them.

"I would say it's 95 percent dead," Matthew Schettenhelm, a government and litigation analyst with the Bloomberg Intelligence in Washington, said of set-top box reform on Monday. "It's a very long road to get this done."

Said a Wall Street analyst on Monday: "There is a pretty slim likelihood that this goes forward."

Chris Lewis, vice president with the nonprofit group Public Knowledge, which has advocated for new rules, said that the FCC would still be under a congressional mandate to bring competition to the set-top boxes in a Trump administration.

"We don't know what Trump thinks about set-top boxes," Lewis said.

A set-top box reversal also would boost set-top manufacturers such as Arris International, which employs hundreds at the former Motorola operations in Horsham.

Championed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the reforms were struggling at the Democrat-controlled federal regulatory agency even before Trump was elected. Pay-TV giants and Hollywood content companies lobbied against them.

Wheeler had scheduled a vote on his set-top box proposal in late September but then canceled it because he did not have the three Democrat votes on the commission to pass it.

The new set-top rules continue to circulate at the agency but they are not scheduled for a vote at the next FCC meeting this Thursday.

And time is slipping away for Obama-appointee Wheeler as chairman at the agency. The five-member commission will be reconstituted under Republican control with Trump occupying the White House.

Even if Wheeler could cobble together the three Democrat votes, the set-top box reforms could be challenged and reversed under a new administration and Republican-led FCC, insiders say.

FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart declined to comment on Monday.