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#UnlockTheBox: It’s Now Or Never

September 12, 2016 , , , ,

Every time I tell people about the Federal Communications Commission’s #UnlockTheBox proceeding, the reaction is always the same: It’s a no-brainer. They burst into rants about how much they hate the boxes, that they hate paying so much, and that they can't understand why someone hasn't done something about this cable box rip-off that results in such a lackluster product and poor service. Even as they thank heaven, the FCC, and consumer advocates for their efforts to actually fix this, they ask why it hasn’t been done sooner. It’s getting ridiculous.

Fortunately for consumers like them, the time for relief is at hand. Last week, the FCC published its plan to release consumers from the cable chokehold on how they access the content they already pay for. No longer will consumers have no choice but to endlessly lease old boxes from the cable giants, padding industry coffers to the tune of a whopping $20 billion a year. Instead, the FCC will require MVPDs to provide an app alternative — sort of like Netflix and Hulu do now — that will give you access to the full package of your cable subscription on whatever means you choose, for no additional charge. That means the cable programming for which you’re already paying for will be fully accessible on third-party devices, from streaming devices to Smart TVs to smartphones. Or, if you like, you can simply keep paying for a box, like you do today.

Bottom line: It's your pay-TV subscription. You pay for it, and once you’ve paid, federal law promises that you should have the choice of when, where, and how you enjoy it. As a bonus, that added choice also means shaving some of the fat off your monthly cable bill.

Although the plan has been circulated and the critical benefits explained publicly, we still need to get it over the finish line. That means making sure it stays on the agenda for the Commission's meeting on September 29, where the Commissioners will have the opportunity to vote to make the proposal into law. It means making sure that critical consumer protections remain in the proposal as we move toward that goal. It also means ensuring the FCC includes strong enforcement mechanisms so that cable can't give it the runaround and find clever new ways to wring even more money out of their customers. Lastly, it means making sure Congress knows how much this matters to consumers, and how badly any further delays hurt Americans’ wallets. (See how much they've already swallowed just since the inception of the current proceeding.)

It's been 20 years since Congress told the FCC to do its job to ensure a competitive video marketplace in the public interest, and two years since they reiterated the importance of competition in this space by directing the FCC to move forward with this process. That’s right, those who keep saying this is “too complicated” or “so difficult it deserves more time” have contributed to all of us paying up to $40 billion too much! The Commission is finally on the cusp of putting an end to these outrageous set-top box charges.

But as we speak, big cable and big Hollywood are fighting tooth and nail, throwing out all manner of misdirection arguments in an effort to render the FCC's rules impotent. Their strategy is to burden the FCC with industry giveaways, carve-outs, and self-serving exceptions that would guarantee cable’s indefinite control over the video marketplace. If cable can’t get everything they want, they would just as soon this FCC not act at all, so they can continue to gorge themselves on consumers’ pocketbooks in perpetuity. That’s right, another $20 billion next year.

We are encouraged by what the Commission announced its rules will contain, and believe that the FCC has done a thoughtful job of addressing legitimate concerns raised by stakeholders on all sides. Moving forward benefits everyone involved — more choices and lower prices for consumers; more opportunities to innovate for cable; more outlets and new voices for programming.

It's time to finally finish the job to give consumers choice in their homes and cash back in their wallets. I look forward to seeing the Commission doing just that in a few weeks' time. And, hopefully, the next time I talk to people about #UnlockTheBox, I’ll hear how excited they are about the new opportunities and choices the FCC’s action will bring — and not vented frustration on cable’s eternal, evasive rip-off.

Image credit: Flickr user stevendepolo