The average American household shells out $232 a year for the privilege of renting a set-top box from a cable company, and Bernie Sanders, for one, is tired of it. The Vermont senator and 2016 Democratic presidential hopeful was one of eight U.S. senators who signed a letter Monday urging the Federal Communications Commission to act swiftly on a plan that would -- theoretically at least -- unshackle consumers from those unsightly boxes provided by cable companies.
The letter, spearheaded by Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., called on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to address the lack of competition and innovation in the set-top-box market, which the senators assert has been at a virtual standstill. Whereas interfaces on smartphones, tablets and desktop computers are constantly evolving, the remote controls and channel guides that permeate interfaces on linear television often stifle content discovery and leave many consumers throwing up their hands in frustration. But rather than shop elsewhere for set-top boxes, almost all pay-TV customers continue to lease them directly from their providers, presumably because viable alternatives are scarce.
“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,” the senators wrote.
Last year, Congress passed legislation aimed in part at opening up the set-top-box market by establishing a working group tasked with recommending new technology that would allow consumers to more easily integrate boxes purchased on the retail market. Currently, consumers must rely on a CableCARD, a piece of decryption hardware, which has been criticized as both wasteful and outdated, but which had been mandated by Congress. That mandate expires this year, and the senators want the FCC to initiate a rulemaking process that will foster cheap, efficient and easy-to-use replacement technology:
“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. Without strong FCC action, consumers may be left with no choice but to rent set top boxes from their [pay-TV] 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.”
In addition to Sanders and Markey, the letter was signed by six other Democratic senators: Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Al Franken of Minnesota, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Markey and Blumenthal have been vocal critics of the set-top-box status quo. Earlier this year, the two senators asked the 10 largest pay-TV providers -- including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter and DirecTV -- to provide detailed information on their set-top-box policies. The lawmakers found that providers charge almost $20 billion in annual rental fees for such devices.
Sanders, who is falling further behind front-runner Hillary Clinton in national voting polls, has been sounding off on the cable industry as well. This summer, he was one of four senators who sent a letter to Wheeler asking the FCC to investigate the “ridiculous prices” charged by pay-TV providers.
Read the latest letter here.