Cable customers who are tired of paying through the nose to rent set-top boxes are about to see some serious savings, thanks to a new proposal from the Federal Communications Commission.
The new regulation would open up the set-top box market to consumer choice so that customers could rent or buy devices from providers other than their cable companies. About 99 percent of cable customers currently rent set-top boxes from their cable company. According to a survey commissioned by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), cable customers pay an average of $232 a year for those rentals -- a $20 billion market annually, just for set-top box rentals.
Set-top box fees have soared, even as prices for newer technology have plummeted. Consumer payments for set-top boxes are up 185 percent over the past two decades, according to FCC estimates, even as prices for laptops and cell phones have fallen.
Up to $14 billion of the total market is economically pointless profit for cable companies, according to an analysis by the Consumer Federation of America and Public Knowledge, a nonprofit Internet freedom group. Big cable companies including Comcast and Verizon have leveraged their market power to charge prices far higher than what would be permitted in a competitive industry.
Cable companies and their lobbyists are furious about the plan, which the commission is set to vote on Feb. 18. But the proposal didn't emerge from a vacuum. Liberal senators have been pressuring the FCC to act on cable "monopolies" for months. In July, current Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) organized a letter calling on the agency to collect a host of consumer pricing information from cable companies -- a move designed to show that in many regions of the country, households pay arbitrarily high prices due to a lack of other cable options. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Markey and Blumenthal all signed on to the letter.