Of all the electronic devices in American homes, the cable box is one of the hardest to use and probably one of the most expensive. A recent survey by two Democratic senators found that consumers spend on average about $231 a year to rent them.
People should be able to buy cable boxes from any manufacturer and connect them to their cable line or satellite dish as long as they meet basic technical standards. That could save Americans hundreds of dollars; it’s a one-time outlay, and the cost of the technology in set-top boxes, as with other electronics, is falling. Some companies sell them for less than $200.
The virtual monopoly that cable companies have over set-top boxes is reminiscent of the way AT&T used to require customers to rent phones from the company. That ended after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) forced the company to let people connect telephones, radios and other equipment that were not made by AT&T in a 1968 decision known as Carterfone.
That pivotal decision, in turn, saved consumers money and boosted innovation by opening the door for devices like dial-up modems that people would later use to connect to the Internet.
Regrettably, regulators have not had the same success prying open the cable network. In 1996, Congress required cable companies to accommodate competing devices, which allowed companies like TiVo to sell set-top boxes directly to consumers. But most consumers have chosen not to buy these machines, which need an electronic card to verify a cable-TV subscription. Cable companies issue these cards, but often for a monthly fee; experts say getting and using the cards can be a hassle.
So most Americans rent set-top boxes, paying a total of nearly $20 billion a year to cable and satellite companies like Comcast and DirecTV, according to data collected by the two senators, Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
But the cable-box boondoggle could be coming to an end. The FCC is expected to consider new regulations based on recommendations provided to the commission last week by experts from telecommunications companies, public interest groups and device makers.
Connecting a set-top box to a cable line or satellite dish should be as easy as activating a new cellphone on a wireless network. Consumers should have a choice of devices, and they should be able to buy the boxes outright or pay for them through their monthly plan. And using a set-top box should not require an electronic card. Surely, cable and tech companies can come up with software that can verify that set-top boxes are being used by paying subscribers.
In addition to saving people money, reducing cable companies’ control over set-top boxes could improve TV watching. Some television makers might build set-top boxes into their machines so consumers would not have to buy two devices. Tech companies like Apple and Google could create set-top boxes with easier-to-use menus. Device makers might also offer consumers the ability to simultaneously search for entertainment on cable and Internet-based services such as Netflix and Hulu.
Cable and satellite companies will surely resist change or try to water down the new FCC regulations. After all, they stand to lose billions in rental fees. But it is in their long-term interest to give consumers more choices. A growing number of Americans are giving up cable TV because it costs too much. Consumers might be more inclined to pay for cable if the industry stopped trying to nickel-and-dime them.
From an editorial in the New York Times