We are the 99% — of cable customers

Few things unite Americans quite like our common disdain for the cable company. A Consumer Reports survey last year showed that customers everywhere are dissatisfied with service quality and value.

All of that is bad enough. But one part of the cable experience that has long frustrated me — as a regulator and a customer — is the monthly rent on my set top box. Our household is typical of cable households that pay hundreds of dollars per year to rent that little piece of furniture. Even as every other electronic device in our households has raced forward technologically, our set top boxes have lagged in innovation and creativity.

So it was welcome news indeed when the Federal Communications Commission announced a possible opening of the set top box market to competition.

Under the new framework, consumers would be able to shop for a better box — one they would own, rather than lease — and that would connect them to all of the programming they pay for, as well as make it easier to access streaming and over-the-top programming. That’s great news for consumers and content creators and an unprecedented opportunity for the independent and diverse programmers who historically have struggled for placement on the cable dial. A new, smarter box would allow those programmers to connect directly with consumers, by-passing Big Cable gatekeepers.

With everything consumers have to gain if the boxes hit the open market, it’s no surprise that more than 100,000 people already have written to the FCC in support of the idea. It’s also not surprising that Big Cable is fighting back; industry lobbyists are prowling the halls of Congress, twisting every arm and calling in every favor. At the FCC, they’re as omnipresent and familiar as the people who actually work there. Gatekeepers hate change — and boy do they love those hefty monthly rental fees.

It’s worth asking why we are fighting about this now. Congress directed the FCC to create a framework for competitive set top boxes 20 years ago. Since then, every time the FCC has even thought about creating cable box competition, the industry and its friends in Congress have found a way to short-circuit it. And they’ve been seriously effective: some 99% of pay-TV households still rent their set top boxes!

Consider that the National Cable & Telecommunications Association spent $16.4 million on lobbying between 2006 and 2015 — and that eye-popping sum doesn’t include the cost of lobbying by individual cable companies like Comcast and Charter. Tack on the millions the industry spends on political donations and you’ve got a system of influence peddling tailor made for the anti-consumer status quo.

Big Cable will pull out all the stops to defend their gatekeeper status. There’s still time for individuals to speak up. They should contact Congress and demand the FCC stay strong in this fight. The public interest demands it.

Michael Copps was FCC Commissioner 2001–2011. Since 2012 he has served as Special Adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative.