FCC’s Cable Box Mandate: Costly, Illegal, and Unnecessary

Regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) want to dictate how cable and satellite television providers design their so-called “set-top boxes”—a fancy term for what many people refer to as a DVR or HD box that they rent from their television provider. The FCC claims its proposed rules would “unlock” the box, enabling consumers to watch live television on all sorts of devices—from smartphones to gaming consoles—instead of paying $10 to rent a dedicated set-top box.

But there’s a big problem with this proposal: it’s costly, unnecessary, and outside the scope of the agency’s authority. This won’t come as a surprise if you follow the FCC, which has recently embarked on numerous ill-conceived regulatory voyages from micromanaging Internet service providers to stripping elected state legislatures of the authority to pass laws protecting taxpayers from municipal boondoggles. In the same vein, the FCC’s new effort to regulate set-top boxes will only hurt consumers and delay innovation.

The FCC’s foray into set-top boxes is especially bizarre given that these boxes are quickly going out of style. Comcast and Time Warner Cable, two of the nation’s largest cable companies, have announced that renting a cable box will soon be optional for their subscribers, who will be able to watch and record television on devices including Roku media players and newer “smart” television sets. Meanwhile, Internet-based services like Dish Network’s Sling TV and Hulu’s forthcoming cable-killer stream live television to practically any device, while on-demand platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO NOW offer massive libraries of movies and television shows, including lots of original content.

To read more about why regulating set-top boxes is an unwise idea, check out the comments that CEI recently filed with the FCC along with TechFreedom. We explain why Congress never authorized the agency to impose such far-reaching rules on cable and satellite providers. We discuss how the rules would undermine copyright laws, stripping the owners of television shows of the right to enforce the terms of their licensing agreements with television providers. And we told the FCC that if it insists on issuing new rules, it should consider a far less costly and dubious option, known as the “Apps-Based Proposal,” which would not require television providers to re-architect their systems.