Cable TV customers are fond of complaining about their ever-rising monthly bills, which now average almost $100. Although the main factor has been the growing sums of cash the cable operators have to fork over to NBC, ESPN and other networks for their programming, the operators themselves are demanding higher fees from consumers for the converter boxes that unscramble, record and display shows. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Americans pay an average of $231 a year renting pay-TV set-top boxes, with cable-box fees almost tripling since the mid-1990s.
Worse, consumers have little choice when it comes to cable converter boxes. As part of a telecommunications-law overhaul in 1996, Congress required the cable industry to open its systems to set-tops made by competitors. That presented technical challenges, however, that cable operators have been less than enthusiastic about solving. And even when a solution was found, the industry continued to act as a gatekeeper over devices and technologies. As a result, with limited exceptions, consumers have been stuck with whatever their local cable operator offered, which has slowed innovation in program guides, digital recorders, the integration of online content and other key aspects of TV service.
This week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled yet another effort to create a secure way for device makers to connect to cable services and provide alternatives to the industry’s set-top boxes. The proposal wouldn’t dictate the technology used; instead, it would require cable operators to comply with a set of open standards for how information is transmitted and protected.
If it worked, one obvious result would be that cable operators would face competition for the roughly $7.50 they collect each month per converter box, which should drive costs down for consumers.
The FCC is expected to vote next month on whether to start a formal rule making on Wheeler’s proposal. Not surprisingly, the cable industry and its partners in Hollywood are resisting Wheeler’s proposal.
Device makers would be able to emphasize some channels over others, which could hurt lesser-known networks, they argue, and consumers could be showered with intrusive ads. Just be patient, they say, because cable operators and TV networks are gradually rolling out more options for consumers.
Nevertheless, Congress decided almost 20 years ago that cable operators shouldn’t be the ones controlling the evolution of set-top boxes. That market should be competitive. And rather than trusting cable operators to promote indie networks, limit consumers’ exposure to advertising and protect their privacy, it’s far better to let consumers decide such things for themselves in an open, competitive market.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES