FCC Poised to Break Up Big Cable's Chokehold on Set-Top Boxes

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FCC Poised to Break Up Big Cable's Chokehold on Set-Top Boxes

'These rules will open the door for innovation, spurring new apps and devices, giving consumers even more choice and user control'

Most cable customers pay an average of $231 a year to rent their set-top boxes from their providers, amounting to an annual tab of $20 billion in fees. (Photo: Mr.TinDC/flickr/cc)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing a new set of rules to break up big cable's "stranglehold" on set-top boxes, the devices that use source signals to transmit content onto television screens.

"[W]hen it comes to the set-top-box that delivers our pay-TV subscriptions, we have essentially no options, creating headaches and costing us serious money in rental fees. That makes no sense," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, noting that most cable customers pay an average of $231 a year to rent their set-top boxes from their providers, amounting to an annual tab of $20 billion in fees nationwide.

"We keep paying these charges even after the cost of the box has been recovered because we have no meaningful alternative," Wheeler wrote.

The FCC's new rules would require pay-TV companies to provide free apps rather than boxes that consumers can download onto their devices, where the programs they already paid for would be available.

Wheeler wrote:

If you want to watch Comcast's content through your Apple TV or Roku, you can. If you want to watch DirectTV's offerings through your Xbox, you can. If you want to pipe Verizon's service directly to your smart TV, you can. And if you want to watch your current pay-TV package on your current set-top box, you can do that, too. The choice is yours. No longer will you be forced to rent set-top boxes from your pay-TV provider.

That would expand consumers' access to integrated searching, which, for example, allows viewers to simply type in the name of a film and find out information about its upcoming broadcast and streaming availability—and that means more access to "independent and diverse voices," he explained. "These rules will open the door for innovation, spurring new apps and devices, giving consumers even more choice and user control."

The consumer advocacy group Common Cause applauded the proposed rules, tweeting a "Kudos" to Wheeler and the commission and writing that the campaign, known as Unlock the Box, will "save consumers money, unleash innovation, and promote diversity."

"This is a golden era for watching television and video. By empowering consumers to access their content on their terms, it's about to get cheaper—and even better," Wheeler said.

Cable service giants largely oppose the plan.

A vote on the proposal is expected on September 29. If it is adopted, cable companies will have two years to comply, while smaller providers will have four.

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