By JOHN DUNBAR and DEBORAH YAO,
Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON - It has been 11 years since Congress voted to break the
cable television industry's stranglehold on set-top boxes -- the
devices that consumers need to receive digital programming and change
So why are you still paying $5 or more a month for that thing on top of
When Congress rewrote the nation's communications laws in 1996, it
envisioned a thriving retail market where subscribers could actually buy
their own boxes rather than make monthly payments to the cable company
Things haven't quite worked out that way. The retail market for the
boxes has failed to materialize, and the cable industry has filed
numerous appeals and continued to press a furious lobbying and public
relations campaign to make sure it never does, foes say.
Come July 1, the gloves come off. After two years of deadline
extensions, that's when the Federal Communications Commission will
require cable companies to make hardware changes in all new set-top
boxes that it hopes will lead to a competitive market.
At the center of this melee is FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who has
opposed cable's requests for another delay. He sees set-top boxes
going the way of the black rotary-dial telephone that consumers once
rented from the phone company.
When the government opened that market, it "led to more innovation and
lower prices and better quality phones," he said. "I think the same
thing can be true in this (cable box) market as well."
The cable industry disagrees. David Cohen, executive vice president of
cable giant Comcast Corp. in Philadelphia and its top political
liaison, said consumers won't benefit from the change.
"I'm not sure it's a piece of technology a consumer needs to own or
wants to own," he said. Once a newer set-top box comes out, "Circuit
City won't take their old box and give them a refund to get a new
model. They have to buy a new box to get the newest and fanciest
The FCC rules will only affect customers with digital cable, a
population that has grown steadily. For the first time last year,
there were more digital cable subscribers than analog, according to
the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the cable trade
Of about 65 million cable households nationwide, 33 million have
To jump-start competition, the cable industry will be required to
separate the security function inside their digital set-top boxes --
the hardware that ensures customers can only view channels they are
paying for -- from the navigation function, which is basically the
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 included a grab bag of provisions
that were meant to spark competition and limit regulation in nearly
every area of the industry. The set-top box provision was no
The law ordered the FCC to "adopt regulations to assure the commercial
availability to consumers" of "converter boxes, interactive
communications equipment, and other equipment" used to access
multichannel video programming such as cable. On June 11, 1998, the
agency adopted a two-phase plan to do just that.
Set-top boxes distributed by cable companies today contain both
security and navigation functions. In the first phase of the plan, the
FCC ordered the industry to make the security function separately
available by July 1, 2000.
That led to the development of the "cable card."
The credit card-sized devices house the de-scrambling function and
plug into competing boxes, such as the new TiVo Series3, and digital
cable-ready televisions, which have a card slot.
So far, there's been little competition for competing set-top boxes.
Only about 260,000 cable cards have been deployed, according to the
NCTA. And they don't always work very well.
The second phase begins July 1, when cable providers are banned from
providing new boxes that integrate both the security and navigation
functions. Existing subscribers can continue to rent their current
The new boxes will have to use the same cable card technology as the
competition. The FCC is hoping that forcing cable companies to do that
will motivate them to make sure the cards work like they're supposed
to. The agency hopes it will eliminate some of the problems that have
faced customers like Ken Hornstein, a 36-year-old computer programmer
from Vienna, Va.
Hornstein rents two cable cards so he can record one show on his TiVo
while watching another. But he says one card malfunctioned after
installation, requiring a second technician to visit him at home to
replace it. The new card stopped working after a month or two, and had
to be replaced again. Hornstein said technicians didn't seem to know
much about cable cards.
"It wouldn't decrypt anything, wouldn't tune any channels," he
said. The technicians "don't expect to see cable cards. If they were
used to seeing cable cards we wouldn't have that problem."
Once cable companies have to use the same security technology as their
competitors, the hope is that they'll suffer fewer problems because it
will be in the cable companies' interest to keep them free of
The cable industry says the new rule will cost it $600 million more a
year for new boxes, an expense that will be passed along to customers.
One competitor says that figure is vastly overblown.
Cable operators also say customers would rather rent their boxes rather
than shell out hundreds of dollars to buy them, according to Dallas
Clement, senior vice president of product management at Cox
"Is there really a market for these? TiVo is $800 and $13 a month for
a two-tuner high-definition digital video recorder," he said. "Us,
they pay nothing up front and it's a $10 monthly lease."
TiVo, which is now offering a $200 rebate for the Series3, argues that
its interface and features are superior to those on digital video
recorders offered by cable companies.
The dispute between cable and the FCC has been sharper since Martin
became FCC chairman in 2005. But one thing they both agree on is that
there is an alternative that makes more sense.
A technology dubbed "downloadable security" would let cable companies
send the security function directly to a computer chip in specially
enabled TV or other devices, eliminating the need for cable cards or a
"I think that kind of a technology is probably feasible and is
definitely preferable from a consumer perspective," the FCC's Martin
said. "And I think that would be a better result for consumers than
having to worry about trying to get a cable card."
The problem, he said, has been getting a commitment from the cable
"I think that downloadable security would have been preferable if we
could have actually gotten a commitment by when this would have been
rolled out -- a commitment with penalties if the cable industry failed to
meet that deadline," Martin said.
Kyle McSlarrow, chief executive of the NCTA, said the FCC requirement
has delayed work on the software solution.
"Candidly, a lot of that work has been put on hold. There's so much
focus now on complying with the integration ban by July 1," he said.
Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, doesn't buy
"They've had ten years to solve this problem," he said. "Consumers
want a retail marketplace. Retailers want to sell it. Manufacturers
want to make it. The cable industry is doing everything they can to
preserve their monopoly profits on set-top boxes."
Even with the change, the cable industry will still have a distinct
advantage over competitors. Unlike the cable company's set-top box,
televisions with cable card slots sold at retail and other devices
still won't be able to do interactive functions like deliver on-demand
and pay-per-view programming.
An agreement has yet to be reached between cable and consumer
electronics makers on technical standards for interactive technology.
The digital cable-ready TVs now in circulation can receive but not
transmit data, creating a one-way street that limits their appeal to
Some cable companies have struck agreements individually with
manufacturers like Samsung Electronics America.
Samsung is testing a two-way digital TV in Milwaukee with Time Warner
Cable Inc. but a wider rollout of similar models won't be available
until next year, said Stephen Goldstein, director of business
development at Samsung Electronics America.
Martin said the FCC is debating a petition filed by the consumer
electronics companies, including Sony, asking for the next step to
ensure that two-way technology will come to pass.
"We'll try to move forward on it in a timely basis," he said. "We're
trying to get this first deadline in place first."
AP Business Writer Deborah Yao reported from Philadelphia.
On the web:
National Cable and Telecommunications Association: http://www.ncta.com
Consumer Electronics Association: http://www.ce.org
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.
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