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Unlocking the Box Will Benefit Rural America

September 14, 2016 , , ,

The Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to unlock the box will benefit all pay-TV viewers, but particularly rural Americans, who often rely heavily on pay-TV subscriptions for information and entertainment. Where they live, broadband may be unavailable or slow, and over-the-air TV may be hard to tune in. Under the proposal that FCC Chairman Wheeler has circulated to the other four Commissioners, rural Americans will save money on device rental fees and benefit from an upgrade to their viewing experience.

Certainly, one of the major benefits of set-top box and app competition is that it would allow viewers to access cable or satellite TV right on the same devices they might use to watch online video (or for gaming, or just for general internet use). Additionally, the FCC’s proposal will ensure that MVPD apps can display video from a satellite dish, a traditional cable TV line, or over a specialized IP service. A viewer who watches her pay-TV subscription on a smart TV, mobile phone, or TV-connected device like a Roku would not be using “the internet.” In any case, any MVPD that currently serves a household and provides a rented device will be required to support apps for that household, without requiring any extra services.

The benefits of the FCC's proposal will accrue first to customers of major providers, such as the largest cable companies, or satellite providers like DirecTV. This is because smaller providers will be exempt from having to develop new apps for their viewers. This makes sense — smaller providers might lack the technical expertise and financial resources that large companies like Comcast have. However, the benefits of a more competitive marketplace will lower equipment costs across the country, and smaller providers can be expected to deploy technology first developed by and for the major providers. In fact, some small providers might decide to eventually move away from rented boxes entirely. However, it's worth noting that the FCC's proposal does not require that anyone stop using the box they're used to, if they like it. This is about providing consumers with choices by not requiring that they use a particular kind of device.

The FCC has found a way to finally provide more competition and choice to pay-TV subscribers across the nation, using a method that is much simpler for consumers than the existing CableCARD regime. But it's worth remembering who might benefit the most from this upgrade to their pay-TV service: rural Americans.

Image courtesy of flickr user: Mr.TinDC

About John Bergmayer

John Bergmayer is Legal Director at Public Knowledge, specializing in telecommunications, media, internet, and intellectual property issues. He advocates for the public interest before courts and policymakers, and works to make sure that all stakeholders — including ordinary citizens, artists, and technological innovators — have a say in shaping emerging digital policies.