President Obama Wants to Liberate Your Cable Box

Quick. What's the company everyone loves to hate? The cable company, of course. The aggravating installation, the inexplicable outtages, the maddening programming bundles, and the fees. Oh yes, the fees. But there's hope, and possibly change. President Obama has endorsed a proposal that would eliminate perhaps the most annoying cable TV fee. That's good, right?

If you pay for your TV viewing, 99% of you lease your set-top box from the cable or satellite provider. And that recurring charge adds up. In fact, according to a White House analysis, we spend an average of $231 annually to rent the box. Surprised? Thought it was a lot less? It used to be less, but over the last 20 years, that cost has risen 185%. Altogether, Americans now pay $20 billion a year to rent cable TV boxes. Seems like a rip-off, right?

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, thinks it's a rip-off. That's encouraging because it is outdated FCC regulations that have perpetuated the mess. Stop me if this all sounds familiar. Back in the old telecom days, you had to lease your telephone from Ma Bell. The FCC eventually got around to ending that. Similarly, the FCC eventually separated wireless network devices from the provider. Now, the FCC finally wants to open up the set-top box to competition.

Under the FCC proposal, anyone could build and sell cable TV boxes; for example instead of leasing the box from Comcast, you could buy one from Google, Amazon, or Apple (who are chomping at the bit to get into the TV business). Think about it. Over four years, you spend almost $1,000 to lease a box, a box that surely pays for itself in the first year. Instead, you could buy any box you wanted, own it, and Comcast would have to support it.

The proposal gained widespread attention when the President expressed his strong support for it. The President's position is not particularly surprising; Tom Wheeler is an Obama appointee and he would not have written the proposal unless the White House had already approved it. Regardless, after a review period, it seems likely that the FCC will change the regulations accordingly.

And that, of course, will trigger legal challenges from the cable TV industry. Much as the FCC's net neutrality rules were quickly challenged in court, any new set-top box rule would face legal proceedings. Actually, the cable TV industry has already decried the administration's statements as political meddling and flatly called the FCC proposal "unlawful, unnecessary, unworkable and unfair." Some senior executives mocking refer to the FCC's document as "the Google proposal."

On the face of it, the proposal sounds good. $2 billion, except when it comes to government spending, is no small sum. One concern is this: Companies such as Google and Apple profit greatly from our private data. If we buy cable TV boxes from Google, we should have privacy safeguards for our viewing habits, otherwise we are simply trading a rip-off for a further invasion of privacy. Personally I would rather suffer the former.

It's relatively unusual for an administration to take a position on a technical issue. (Although the President also took sides on net neutrality). But, the President did weigh in on cable boxes. Thus it is fair game to ask the political questions. Is President Obama looking out for the little guy, boldly smashing corporate greed and monopoly? Or is he rewarding the executives of big tech companies who donated to his campaigns and hired his former aids? Or maybe just some legacy burnishing going on? Well, I don't really care and I'll let political pundits debate that. Provided that we have privacy safeguards, the new cable box regulations seem good to me. Just wish it had happened a lot sooner.

mtymous1's picture

By utilizing my home network, existing systems / hardware, and an HDHomeRun Prime (with a CableCARD), I get ALL of the subscribed channels to ALL 5 HDTVs in the house. It saves around $50/mo by virtually eliminating all rental fees. Plus I get to watch (and record) on MORE devices than a single STB.

More info here:

hk2000's picture

I was about to say the same thing, this DID happen a lot sooner, if only TV makers seized the opportunity to build in the card readers in their TVs, then again, nothing beats the cable card network tuner from Silicondust.