FCC wants cable companies to open up networks to competitive set top boxes

by Steve Blum • , ,

And to more obligatory cat photos.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the broadband policy world, and I’m still getting caught up on all the developments. The California Public Utilities Commission voted to give mobile carriers the same kind of access to utility poles that wireline telcos and cable companies have – more on that tomorrow – and the Federal Communications Commission prepared to scale the walled gardens of set top boxes.

You need a set top box to get television service from a cable, telephone or satellite company. Right now, you have to take the box that your service provider offers you, with the functionality and price it determines. You can’t buy your own box and plug it in, because service providers lock down their networks and only allow you to use their equipment. Consequently, set top boxes are expensive, with an average rental price of $7.43 per month according to an FCC press release

Lack of competition has meant few choices and high prices for consumers – on average, $231 in rental fees annually for the average American household. Altogether, U.S. consumers spend $20 billion a year to lease these devices. Since 1994, according to a recent analysis, the cost of cable set-top boxes has risen 185 percent while the cost of computers, televisions and mobile phones has dropped by 90 percent.

If you could buy your own box or a television set or computer or other device with that capability built in, you 1. wouldn’t have to pay a monthly rental charge and 2. you can pick and choose the capabilities – recording multiple programs, say – you want. Up to a point.

Later this month, the FCC will vote on whether to start the process of writing new rules that would force video providers to allow third party devices to decode and record programming streams and other services – within the limits of your subscription – and display program guide information. As is the FCC’s practice, the actual text commissioners will vote on, or at least are considering at this point, is supposedly secret – it’s not officially available – so we’ll have to wait until sometime after the 18 February 2016 vote to find out what it really says.