Republicans in Congress want to force consumers to keep renting clunky, outdated cable "set-top" boxes, sending billions of dollars annually into the corporate coffers of Comcast, Charter and other industry giants.
GOP lawmakers on Wednesday urged new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to formally kill a FCC plan to increase competition in the pay-TV market that would save consumers an estimated $20 billion every year.
Big cable companies and their allies in Hollywood hate the proposal, which would require cable operators to offer software "apps" giving consumers access to content like ESPN on the device of their choice. Many cable operators already offer mobile apps, but the FCC proposal would require them to make such apps available on Android, iOS, Amazon and other third-party devices—without the need to rent a set-top box from the cable company.
The plan, which would fulfill a federal mandate established by Congress two decades ago, has languished at the FCC after former chairman Tom Wheeler failed to secure the votes to approve it. Now, Republicans in Congress want Pai to officially kill the set-top box proposal—an outcome that's virtually certain given Pai's vehement opposition to the plan.
"We are writing to ask that you close the docket on the set-top box proceeding," nineteen GOP lawmakers wrote to Pai on Wednesday, "and signal clearly to consumers, content producers, consumer electronics manufacturers, and video programming distributors that the Commission's consideration of the set-top box proposal is at an end."
"Sounds good to me!" Mike O'Rielly, Pai's Republican FCC colleague, responded on Twitter. "Time to move past this discredited proposal." A FCC spokesperson said that Pai has received the letter and is reviewing it, but declined to comment further.
Republican lawmakers are now encouraging the FCC not to enforce federal law.
Set-top box reform was already effectively dead, but the Republican letter sends a strong signal that GOP lawmakers will support Pai and O'Rielly in their expected campaign to roll back other pro-consumer FCC reforms, including rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers.
The Republican letter also sends a clear message to Big Telecom and Hollywood that when it comes to the FCC, GOP lawmakers will support their interests. Among the lead signatories on the letter was Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received mountains of campaign cash from the telecom and entertainment industries.
The Republican letter parrots many telecom and entertainment industry talking points, including the argument that the proposal undermines the intellectual property rights of "content creators," and the assertion that the plan "casts a shadow over investment and innovation in traditional video programming delivery."
Proponents of the FCC's proposal argue that those concerns are wildly overblown, and suggest that the telecom industry is primarily motivated by the desire to protect its stranglehold on the lucrative set-top box gravy train at the expense of consumers.
"Ending the set-top box monopoly would bring the benefits of competition, including lower prices and better devices, to cable subscribers," John Bergmayer, Senior Counsel at DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "Consumers currently spend about $20 billion a year for overpriced boxes they aren't allowed to dump."
The Communications Act includes a mandate in Section 629 requiring federal regulators to ensure a competitive marketplace for "video navigation devices." But for the last two decades, the FCC has failed to carry out this mandate, thanks to sustained pushback from the cable industry and its political allies.
By urging the FCC to kill the set-top box reform proposal, Republican lawmakers are now in the unusual position of encouraging the agency not to enforce federal law.
"Despite the change in administration, the FCC has a law to abide by and an obligation to implement," said Bergmayer. "Section 629 of the Communications Act is the law of the land, and it directs the FCC to ensure that consumers can choose from a competitive market for 'unaffiliated' devices that can access their complete cable TV or other pay-TV subscriptions."
"Despite the FCC's recent efforts on this issue, the law has not been enforced and consumers continue to be burdened by a multi-billion dollar set-top box ripoff," Bergmayer added. "Chairman Pai should continue the FCC's work to bring consumers relief in this matter."
Unfortunately for consumers, there's virtually no chance that will happen anytime soon.