Not long after the conversion from analog to digital television signals, an old practice came back with vengeance: cable companies resumed leasing of cable boxes, taking advantage of the fact that old antennas and converters no longer functioned. Today, according to the proposal fact sheet [PDF] at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):
Ninety-nine percent of pay-TV subscribers currently rent set-top boxes because there aren’t meaningful alternatives. Lack of competition has meant few choices and high prices for consumers -– $231 in rental fees annually for the average American household. Altogether, U.S. consumers spend $20 billion a year to lease these devices.
To solve this problem, the FCC has proposed new rules. The rule making process is now in its “final” stage. Proposals require cable providers to create or allow users “to access all the programming they pay for on a variety of devices, including tablets, smartphones , gaming systems, streaming devices or smart TVs.” This is often called “unlocking the box.” Consumers will “no longer [be] forced to rent boxes.” Cable companies “must provide their apps to widely deployed platforms, such as Roku, Apple, iOS, Windows and Android.” A search feature must be added to cable packages.
Comcast opposed the rules when originally proposed in January. At that time, FCC voted 3-2 for the rules on party lines.
Unfortunately, the majority of Commissioners have chosen to ignore the many voices of reason and instead to pursue a proposal that strays well beyond the FCC’s authority under the Communications Act, and would violate copyright and other statutory and constitutional protections.
In a new editorial at the Los Angeles Times, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler addressed copyright concerns.
While our primary focus during this proceeding was to promote consumer choice and fulfill our congressional mandate, we recognize that protecting the legitimate copyright interests of content creators is also key to serving the public interest. To ensure that all copyright and licensing agreements will remain intact, the delivery of pay-TV programming will continue to be overseen by pay-TV providers from end-to-end. The proposed rules also maintain important protections regarding emergency alerting, accessibility and privacy.
If these proposals go through, and at this late stage it seems highly likely, Comcast may sue the FCC again.