Digital Set Top box for cable TV
The Federal Communications Commission wants to liberate you from your cable company's set-top box.
You probably didn't even realize you needed to be freed from this tyranny. But that's the message from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who's on a mission to make sure consumers have choices when it comes to their set-top box.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is taking on the cable industry with a proposal to open up the market for set-top boxes.Stephen Shankland/CNET
On Thursday, the FCC voted 3-2 to open for comment a proposal the chairman says will offer consumers cheaper and more innovative alternatives to the set-top boxes available from their cable companies.
Today, 99 percent of pay-TV subscribers rent set-top boxes and spend an average of $231 a year to lease these devices, according to a congressional study. This practice brings in about $20 billion a year in revenue to cable, satellite and telco operators. While prices for computers, TVs and mobile phones have dropped by 90 percent in the past 20 years, the FCC says pricing on set-top boxes has increased 185 percent.
"By introducing competition into the set-top market, as Congress has mandated, consumers will finally have options for how they access pay TV, " Chairman Wheeler said at a press conference Thursday. "Those competitive options will do what competition always does, which is drive better services and drive down costs."
Consumer advocates have heralded the FCC's efforts, but critics such as cable companies say an FCC mandate on set-top boxes could add costs, threaten consumer privacy and hurt smaller content producers. One thing is clear, the TV industry is in the midst of rapid change. To help you figure out what all this means, CNET has put together this FAQ.
What happened this week?
The FCC took its first big step toward potentially opening up the set-top market by voting to allow public comments on a proposal from Chairman Tom Wheeler that would require providers of pay TV to use set-top boxes that conform to open standards.
What does it mean for me?
Today, you have little to no choice in which set-top box you use to connect your TV to your cable service. Though additional features, like the ability to record shows, have been added to some boxes, not a whole lot has changed with these devices in the past couple of decades. What's more, you still have to rent the device, dishing out $8 to $10 a month for each box in your house.
With new open standards for these devices, the FCC says you'll pay less for set-top boxes and you'll get more functionality. For instance, you could get a set-top box from Google or Apple that might offer more-robust search capabilities for content or a better user interface. It could also incorporate the ability to stream content from Internet applications, eliminating the need for yet another box like a Roku or a Google Chromecast.
When can I expect to see some changes?
This is just the very beginning. The FCC's vote this week merely opened up the proposal for comment. There will be a long period during which interested parties and the public can comment. Then the FCC will have its final vote on the proposal. The earliest we might see something is by the end of summer, but that's optimistic.
Deep-pocketed cable and phone companies, like Comcast and AT&T, are going to fight this. There will also have to be a standards process for actually determining how the technology would be put into practice. So it could take years before any actual changes are seen in the market.