Whether you cringe at the sight of your monthly cable bill or think you get your money's worth, chances are you long ago stopped noticing the $3 or so a month you pay for the control...

Share story

WASHINGTON — Whether you cringe at the sight of your monthly cable bill or think you get your money’s worth, chances are you long ago stopped noticing the $3 or so a month you pay for the control box that allows you to get premium and digital programs.

But the nondescript cable box is the object of frenzied lobbying over at the Federal Communication Commission these days, with consequences for pocketbooks and television watching.

As with their service, cable companies have a monopoly on these set-top boxes, which haven’t changed much over the past 15 years. If you want digital service or premium channels such as HBO, you need the box, and you use the one provided by your cable company.

About 10 years ago, people began to wonder if that was such a good idea. So Congress, and then the FCC, embarked on plans to create competition for set-top boxes that deliver digital programs.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

That led to several years of wrangling over everything from technical standards to make sure other boxes would work to standards to make sure copyrighted programs couldn’t be illegally copied and then shipped all over the Internet.

Finally, there was progress. The cable guys and the other-device guys agreed on a special card, known as a CableCARD, that would need to be inserted into an approved alternate box.

As this was going on, technology companies got busy thinking up new gear that could also serve as your cable box: digital-television sets with the capability built right in; media-center computers that could control cable tuning, stereo systems and electronic games; newfangled handheld devices.

Some of these devices began to get built and tested with the CableCARDs. Some are even in general circulation.

So what’s the problem?

To make sure that everyone was on the same footing, the regulators decided that the cable company’s device had to use the cards, too.

The logic was that if everyone had to use the card, the cable guys couldn’t give their boxes some capability that gives them an unfair advantage.

Additionally, the theory goes, only by requiring the cable guys to use cards will there be enough demand for the cards to drive down their manufacturing costs.

The cable guys never liked this part of the plan. They successfully lobbied to delay the deadline from the beginning of 2005 to mid-2006. Now they are pushing hard to either extend the deadline another 18 months or do away with the requirement.

They say they have every reason to want devices using cards to succeed because that would create more opportunities to sell cable service.

On the other hand, they say, forcing them to offer new equipment with cards to people who don’t want anything except the basic box will increase consumers’ costs.

No one seems to know exactly how much these cards will cost to make, but the price could drive up the cost of box rentals because the cable guys have no interest in losing money on this deal.

So what’s been the response to changing the rules from electronics companies and other tech firms eager to join this market?

No, no and no. The costs of the cards will dive if every cable provider in the country must use them, they say.

The folks at the FCC won’t talk about the issue. So far, the FCC’s media bureau has made no formal move to urge FCC commissioners to make a decision either way, but that is expected soon.

Jonathan Krim is a reporter at The Washington Post.