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Why You Should Own Your Cable Box

Radio Motherboard looks into the possible ramifications of being able to own, and not just rent, your cable box.

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The tyranny of the set-top box may soon be over.

The way it works now, you're forced to rent a cable box from the likes of Time Warner Cable and Comcast to the tune of about $230 per year. The very idea that in 2016 you need a dedicated piece of hardware, whether it's Comcast's X1 or Time Warner Cable's latest "whole home" DVR, just to tune into Guy's Grocery Games on Food Network is crazy on its own, but the fact that you have to rent these boxes in perpetuity is even worse.


The Federal Communications Commission on February 18 issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would make it so that consumers wouldn't have to rent a set-top box from their cable company.

Although this is just the first step in a lengthy process, the prospect of being able to own your own cable box, just as you're able to own your own cable modem or smartphone, already has supporters of the measure giddy with excitement.

And that's great, of course, but I wanted to lean more about the possible implications of being able to own my own set-top box. (I'd have to get cable first, but that's another matter.) I'd expect to see lower prices as a result of competition among hardware makers, but is that all? What happens when more and more people, from different communities, can afford cable? Might networks be encouraged to create more diverse programming? Heck, what are the odds that the cable companies will fight this tooth and nail (spoiler: it's a lock), and why?

To find some answers to questions like these I reached out to some folks to get a better understanding of the big picture here.

To discuss these issues I'm joined In this edition of Radio Motherboard by John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney at the Public Knowledge advocacy group; FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn; and Michael Scurato, Vice President of Policy at the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

Show notes:

Intro - FCC debates the Motion of Proposed Rulemaking and Nicholas introduces the topics discussed during the podcast.


1:10 - Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer gives a brief overview of the issue, drawing parallels between people being able to buy their own cable modem and people being able to but their own smartphone—why can't we do that with cable boxes?

4:25 - Why cable companies are likely to oppose the measure. Possible reasons include not wanting to altogether eliminate the nearly $20 billion in rental fees they collect each year from consumers and the strategic advantage of directly controlling the cable box. Since cable boxes are effectively small computers, directly controlling them may give cable companies a foothold in related business, like home security and home automation. Basically, the cable box could serve as a hub for the Internet of Things.

7:45 - The FCC measure doesn't require consumers to make any changes; they can continue to rent from their cable company as they do today if for no other reason than it's simply the easiest way to do things.

9:30 - Could the measure appeal to cord cutters? If cord cutters don't have to rent a cable box in perpetuity maybe they'd be more amenable to subscribing?

13:25 - FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn explains why the FCC decided to act now, saying that consumers have "voiced concerns" about what they get for their money. The FCC is merely hoping to spur competition and innovation for the benefit of consumers.

20: 30 - Commissioner Clyburn gives advice on how regular people can become involved in the process, including leaving comments on the FCC website. "We are not proposing anything in a vacuum," she said.

22:00 - Michael Scurato, vice president of policy at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, explains how minority communities sometimes find it difficult to afford cable box rental fees. And what cable companies may not realize is, if they give up the short term revenue from rental fees they may encourage people to subscribe to more expensive programming packages, which is potentially more lucrative in the long term.

27:00 - Making cable more affordable could expand the range of programming that's available to consumers.

28:45 - Outro, what people can expect next in the process to allow consumers to own their own cable box.

This post was updated after initial publication on Feb. 26 to include show notes.