Senators Urge Wheeler To Move On STBs

They want the commission to launch a rulemaking to allow consumers to use set-top boxes of their choice to receive MVPD programming.

Eight U.S. senators on Monday urged FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a letter to “move as quickly possible” to initiate a rulemaking that ensures tens of millions of Americans can use video set-top boxes of their choice to access cable and satellite television subscription programming.

The senators, in advocating for Chairman Wheeler to take up the matter before the full commission, said: “Without strong FCC action, consumers may be left with no choice but to rent set-top boxes from their MVPD providers in perpetuity, which is akin to the days when consumers had no choice but to rent their rotary dial telephone from the telephone company.”

The senators who sent the letter are Edward Markey, Bernard Sanders, Richard Blumenthal, Al Franken, Maria Cantwell, Cory A. Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden.

They wrote: “We are writing to urge the FCC to address the future of competition in the marketplace  for video set-top boxes, which millions of Americans  use to   access television programming. According to information received from the top 10 multichannel video programming  distributors  (MVPDs), these providers  annually  charge consumers  nearly $20 billion in rental fees for set top boxes. Almost all MVPD customers rent these video boxes from their provider, and each American household spends on average $232 per year on video box rental fees alone. We believe the time has arrived for the FCC to enable millions of Americans to access an enormous amount of content in innovative, new, and less costly ways.

“We call on the commission to move as quickly as possible to initiate a rulemaking that ensures that Americans can use set-top boxes of their choice to access MVPD programming. We strongly encourage the commission to ensure that this replacement technology is cheap, efficient, widely available and easy to use. The goal of this technology should be to usher in a new wave of innovation in the set top box marketplace, giving consumers a greater number of cheaper options to buy their own set-top boxes.”

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Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

November 9, 2015 at 11:09 pm

You might think the cable industry would hate this idea, but probably not. Set-top boxes are much more expensive than one would think, particularly HD boxes with DVRs. The article states that MVPDs get “nearly 20 billion in rental fees” for set top boxes. It doesn’t point out how much capital is spent annual to buy, repair and replace those boxes by MVPDs. I suspect cable companies would love to have consumers pay for their own set top boxes. The capital outlay earmarked for STBs could be diverted to building and maintaining a better physical plant and programming. For years, the cable industry has lamented the fact that there were only two basic players in the STB market. The FCC’s Cable Card initiative was supposed to break that duopoly but never caught on. Also, this is much more complex than just set top boxes… there are compatibility issues depending on the conditional access systems used. There’s custom middleware which varies from MVPD to MVPD. And let’s not forget that satellite providers are MVPDs too. Would they be included in this??

Gene Johnson says:

November 10, 2015 at 8:59 am

Cable companies have generally fought against opening up the set-top box market. There must be a reason. Yes, such boxes likely are not “cheap” and there are costs of maintenance and replacement beyond the initial acquisition costs. But, assuming the article is right that the average home pays $232 per year in rental fees, and that boxes are not generally replaced all that often, it likely is a huge profit center for the cable companies. Thus, they fight proposals to open the market (there are some valid concerns, notably security and compatibility, and perhaps operating systems). One would think there are some technological answers to solve these problems, though certainly at a cost. The other option, it would seem to me, is to price cap set-top box rental fees to limit how much profit a cable company can make, and to require cable companies to sell such boxes to customer who want to own, rather than rent, their box. And yes, it would presumably apply to satellite service providers and other MVPDs.

Gene Johnson says:

November 10, 2015 at 9:03 am

Let me also add that as a Comcast customer, who started using an X1 box several months ago, Comcast needs competition in the set-top box market to improve its product. No Comcast box I have used has ever been particularly user friendly, and the X1 is no exception. It also isn’t the most reliable thing, though mine has been better of late after some apparent signal weakness issues were resolved. I also would note that Comcast recycles the boxes (my girl friend got a clearly used box, that was dirty when opened and in which the hard drive made a constant whirring sound; it required her to go back to Comcast to replace it).

Scott Cote says:

November 10, 2015 at 2:20 pm

Ok, but if those MVPD providers no longer sell boxes, than what impetus will there be for them to support an Electronic Program Guide (EPG) that will need to work across a variety of boxes? And does this mean that some standards organization will need to work on an industry standard so that all those boxes have interchangeability? (That will take a millennium) It seems to me that I’m going to need to cough up dollars to TIVO (or) to keep the same functionality. IMHO