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Lawmakers: Consumers have no choice in pay TV set-top boxes

A pair of Democratic lawmakers released a study Thursday that confirms what Americans already know: that they have little to no choice when it comes to the set-top video box that delivers their cable or satellite programming.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) fielded the study last November, prior to the renewal of the satellite act, which repealed a law that required cable companies to make their services compatible with outside set top boxes, like TiVo.

Based on responses from 10 pay TV companies, the study found that about 99 percent of consumers rent set-top boxes directly from the cable or satellite company and pay, on average $89.16 per year to rent a single set-top box.

Consumers, said Markey in a statement, are doomed.

“When Congress last year regrettably removed the requirement that cable company services be compatible with set-top boxes purchased in the marketplace rather than rented directly from the provider, we doomed consumers to being captive to cable company rental fees forever. We also endangered a competitive set-top box marketplace, replacing consumer choice with cable company control. We need a new, national consumer-friendly standard that will allow consumers to choose their own video box irrespective from their pay-TV provider,” Markey said.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which worked to eliminate the set-top box integration ban, countered that the Senators failed to look at all consumer choices for video.

“American consumers have a growing number of choices of video providers and ways to access video content on multiple devices in and out of the home. Retail devices including TiVo, Roku and Apple TV have been purchased by tens of millions of consumers. Pay TV and content providers have embraced the mobile marketplace and offer robust apps that have been downloaded 52 million times on Apple and Android devices,” NCTA said in a statement.

Even with the elimination of the ban, NCTA noted that it won’t chill the market for cable cards and other retail devices.

The Federal Communications Commission formed an advisory committee to figure out technical standards to promote competition among video navigation devices. The Congressionally-mandated report is due this September.

The companies that responded to the Senators’ inquiry were: AT&T, Bright House, Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Dish, DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon.