That little black cable box beside your television is your gateway to dozens of great shows. It's also a drain, sucking money out of your home. Every month, millions of Americans are forced to pay high fees to rent cable boxes. The only way this can change is if the Federal Communications Commission votes to require cable companies to make programming accessible through other devices, ones you could own outright. A vote is set for Sept. 29.
On top of the fees they pay for the programming itself, people spend an average of $231 a year to rent cable boxes, or about $20 billion annually, according to an analysis by two senators. Those rental fees have gone up 185 percent since 1994, according to the Consumer Federation of America, in large part because cable companies know that people have limited choices. By contrast, when it comes to cellphones, consumers can choose their wireless carrier and hardware separately.
Ending cable's monopolistic control over set-top devices would result in more choice at less cost. The FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, has proposed requiring most cable and satellite companies to deliver TV programming through applications that run on devices made by the likes of Apple, Amazon, Google and Roku. People could download the apps free; they would still pay for programming.
Large cable and satellite companies would have two years to develop the apps and smaller cable companies would get four years. Some large cable companies, like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, already have apps for some of the competing devices. Cable companies that serve fewer than 400,000 users would be exempt. People who prefer renting cable boxes could continue doing so.
Wheeler has tried to make his proposal more palatable to the cable companies by giving them control over how the apps work. But they oppose having the commission approve any licensing agreements they negotiate with device makers, because that would allow regulators to tinker with those contracts. But without FCC approval of the agreements, cable companies are likely to set onerous conditions on device makers or cut exclusive deals with certain makers that would limit consumers' choices.
Instead of freeing consumers from the set-top box squeeze, some Republican and Democratic members of Congress are supporting the cable industry, a generous campaign contributor. The lawmakers are trying to pressure one commissioner in particular, Jessica Rosenworcel, who was nominated by President Barack Obama for a second term last year but has not been confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Phones, computers and virtually all other electronic devices become more useful and cost less over time. Why should the box that brings TV shows and movies into homes be any different?