If the FCC gets its way, one day soon you may be able to replace that rented cable box with a set-top boxes from the likes of Apple, Amazon or TiVo, gaming consoles from Microsoft or Sony, or even a Blu-Ray player. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the regulatory commission, has proposed new rules that would open up the cable converter box business, ending your cable company's monopoly over how you get your cable TV.
Right now, cable companies have you at their mercy: Not only are they often the only TV source in town other than over-the-air, but you must also rent a cable box from them. According to a survey conducted a few months ago by Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), cable subscribers spend an average of $89.16 a year for one cable box and $231.82 a year on average for multiple boxes. In contrast, streaming media players cost anywhere from $35 to $200 — and that's a one-time payment.
A single box that combines your cable service with other features like streaming wouldn't just be a potential money saver but also mean less clutter around your TV. Instead of having to constantly switch HDMI inputs on your TV and AV receiver to access each gaming, streaming or cable box, a single device and input would be able to handle all your broadcast, cable, gaming and streaming needs.
The FCC proposal could make getting a cable box more like having a modem for home Internet service. While Internet service providers offer their own eupipment — usually charging a monthly fee — you can also buy your own cable modem to use instead. A review of top cable modems in Tom's Guide found that buying your own often pays for itself after less than two years of eliminating monthly rental fees.
Up until recently, cable companies were required by law to supply anyone who asked with a cable card they could use with a third-party cable converter, such as TiVo's Roamio. With a cable card, Roamio owners get all their broadcast, cable and streaming services through one box and one HDMI connection, along with universal search of all content, regardless of its source.
But last year, the cable companies got their way. In December, President Obama signed the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 that, among other things, repealed the law requiring cable companies to supply you a cable card upon request. The FCC's proposed rules changes are likely designed to counter this clearly anti-competitive, anti-consumer situation.
Facing a loss of billions in cable box revenue — Markey and Blumenthal believe set-top box rentals generates around $20 billion a year — cable providers are expected to put up a fight against the proposed rule change. The Wall Street Journal reports that more than 40 telecommunications and media groups are expected to form a coalition to oppose the plan.
In the face of this push-back, the FCC wants to get its reformed rules passed ASAP, with the added incentive that a new president could change FCC commissioners, chairman and policy.
For consumers, new rules could mean more than just a combined cable converter/streamer box. A new ATSC 3.0 standard, which was demonstrated at CES this month, is being prepared to deliver 4K HDR broadcasts over-the-air for cable cutters. 4K TV makers may well decide to integrate a cable box and a new ATSC 3.0 tuner together with smart TV apps so you don't need any additional content-providing set-top boxes all.
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