Mandatory cable TV set-top box rentals: Change on the way?

Mandatory cable TV set-top box rentals: Change on the way?

FCC, Congress considering another way to cut the cord: Putting an end to cable TV providers’ mandatory, lucrative (for them) set-top box rental system.

A recent example of a typical set-top box. Soon, you may be able to choose and purchase your own. (Image via Wikipedia "set-top box" entry)

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 2016 – Will consumers soon be able to purchase their own set-top cable TV boxes instead of being forced to rent them—at high monthly fees—from their cable providers?

Several sources report Thursday that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved, by a 3-2 vote, a proposal to phase out the prevailing, pricey, consumer-hostile set-top box regime, allowing consumers to shop for and purchase their own devices.

The measure passed in a 3-2 vote Thursday.

“Technology allows it, the industry at one time proposed something similar to it and the consumers deserve a break and a choice,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, according to Clarece Polke of Reuters.

Wheeler also is likely to propose an open standard for set-top boxes, doing away with the kind of product specificity that essentially forces consumers into renting only the cable provider’s “approved” devices.

It’s likely that many, if not a majority of cable TV consumers don’t look at the per-item breakdowns in their monthly cable bill where the monthly set-top rental fee—generally around $7.50 and up—is (or should be) clearly listed. But, notes an NPR report “… a congressional study found that cable subscribers pay an average of $231 a year to rent their cable boxes.

According to NPR, “Wheeler thinks it’s fine if people decide they want to rent. But maybe, he told Variety, giving users a choice would make cable companies build a better box.”

The FCC chair noted he’d prefer cable providers to say to consumers “You want to pay me for my interface, because it does all of these things nobody else does,” rather than “You must pay me” for the box I’m selling, which is the only one that will work.

Cable providers are lining up to protest and will likely advance the usual arguments that competing boxes are expensive (some are, but not all) and that extra costs help subsidize small, minority and specialized cable channels that cable providers might not otherwise carry.

But with the increasing proliferation of cable channels that few people ever watch, as well as the development of streaming services that are fast becoming a more affordable alternative to expensive monthly cable bills, the cable industry’s protests are fast-becoming less convincing. As a result, consumers have been “cutting the cord” in ever-increasing numbers.

Even if a new FCC rule or an act of Congress ends up changing the current set-top box situation, however, it will likely be quite some time before consumers will be able to experience a different, and possibly more competitive, cable TV and set-top box landscape.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17