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Here’s Why Cheaper Set-Top Boxes Are Vital for Minority Communities

The FCC wants consumers to have access to cheaper set-top boxes, addressing a critical concern among social activists.

A Federal Communications Commission proposal that cable companies allow customers to use their own set-top boxes, instead of forcing customers to rent these boxes from the cable companies themselves, is attracting significant support among racial diversity advocacy groups.

Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), told me in a telephone conversation on Friday afternoon that the proposal is the best way to to make the price of TV more accessible to less affluent communities.


In Nogales' view, making set-top boxes more affordable would not only lead to a proliferation of Latino-oriented television programming, but would in turn would lead to a greater understanding of Latino culture among non-Latinos.

"The state of media for minorities in this country is terrible," Nogales told me. "I'm paying over $150 per month for cable—what the hell am I getting for my money?"

As an example, he cited the lack of television channels aimed at Latinos whose primary language is English. "There's Fusion [a joint venture between Univision and ABC] and that's it," he said, noting that a significant percentage of Latinos in the US don't speak Spanish at all.

Nogales isn't alone in his support of the FCC's efforts. Robert L. Johnson, who founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), said in a statement this week that "your audience can only find you if they have a modem or a set-top box or software that lets them know you are there and gives them access to your programs unconstrained by the network gatekeeper."

The FCC's proposal, which will likely come up against major lobbying efforts on the part of cable companies, was announced on Wednesday, and seeks to bring competition to the highly lucrative business of set top boxes. It's estimated that rental fees for these boxes generate several billion dollars per year for the cable companies, with the average American household spending $231 per year on rental fees. But under the FCC's proposal, consumers would not be locked into using the set-top box provided by their cable company and instead would be free to use a set-top box provided by a different company, just as they're free today to use their own cable modem for home broadband service.

Several companies have already signaled their interest in creating these set-top boxes. Tivo told the Wall Street Journal that it sees "great consumer benefits in choice," while Google has already gone on record asking the FCC to "unleash competition" in the set-top box market.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Nogales if he could explain why the average, non-Latino American should care whether or not minority communities have access to affordable set-top boxes. "Surely there are bigger issues to worry about?" some people might wonder.

He quickly shot down that line of thinking.

"If [the US Latino population] were three Mexicans and two Puerto Ricans this wouldn't be an issue," he said, "but we're 18 percent of the population. Affordable set-top boxes are a necessity, not just in terms of costs but in terms of the democratic traditions of this country. These people need to be connected to the society of this country."