By Ian Bush


By KYW tech editor Ian Bush

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – You should be able to choose your TV set-top box the same way you pick a smartphone. That’s one argument being made by proponents of a push for competition in the market long locked-up by the cable companies.

A vote by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday in favor of the plan would open the matter for public discussion and rules mandating open standards for the technology.

Instead of paying Verizon $12/month for a Fios box or handing over $10/month to Comcast for an Xfinity X1 box, you could pay once for a device — from, say, Google — which would give you traditional video and streaming content from those cable giants alongside other companies and content creators.

“The cable box is kind of an outlier as one of the last things in our house that we don’t have a meaningful opportunity to purchase, and there’s really no reason it should be that way,” said Michael Scurato, vice president of policy at the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

The group and others backing the plan echo figures from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: set-top box competition would save cable subscribers $20 billion, or about $231 per household, every year.

But former FCC chairman Michael Powell, now the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, takes Wheeler to task on the math.

“Retail boxes in the market today are no bargain,” Powell said, in an op-ed on Recode. “The latest Tivo box will cost you $299 to buy, and after the first year, you will pay a $14.99 monthly subscription fee (forever). And to get any new innovations in boxes, you will have to toss yours out and buy a new one.”

Comcast is among the companies arguing against the proposed regulation, saying the government has a poor track record — think mandates for CableCARD and FireWire — of keeping up with innovations where cable and consumer technology intersect.

“Consumer costs would rise, content security would weaken, and consumer protections such as privacy would erode,” said Comcast senior vice president Mark Hess in a blog post. “It would undermine intellectual property rights and content licensing agreements.”

Scurato believes the move could increase access by minority and lower-income families to programming unable attract cable carriage. And he notes it wouldn’t transform your current set-top box into a VCR-like anachronism.

“Nothing in the chairman’s proposal that we’ve seen would require people to go out and buy a new cable box,” Scurato said, in an interview with KYW Newsradio. “If you want to continue to rent the cable box that you’re already receiving from your cable company — if that makes more sense for you as a family — then by all means you should be able to do that.”