White House Also Thinks Your Cable Box Rental Fees Stink, Supports FCC’s Plan

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The FCC has said it, studies have shown it, even our own bill guides have proven it: you’re paying tons of money every month, on top of your regular bill, to rent your cable box. And you know who thinks that sucks? President Obama and his top advisors, that’s who.

Remember how it was a big deal when the White House came out swinging in support of net neutrality, while the FCC was mulling that one over? Well, now the Obama administration is jumping in again. Late yesterday, the White House sent a letter (PDF) to the FCC in support of the commissions proposal to increase competition in the set-top box market, and today the administration chased it up with a blog post explaining the reasoning.

The post, written by Obama advisors Jason Furman and Jeffrey Zients, begins by hearkening back to another era of mandatory rented equipment: the age of Ma Bell, before the 1980s.

“Millenials are often defined as the generation born after 1980. But they could also be described as the generation that doesn’t remember what it’s like to be forced to rent a big, overpriced, basic phone from the phone company,” Furman and Zients write.

“Until the early 1980s, the phone company had a monopoly — not just on the wire to your house but, in many cases, on the phone you plugged into that wire. And the result wasn’t pretty. Phones had little variety … and only the most basic functionality. Worse yet, households had to pay a fee each month to rent these phones that added up over time to many multiples of what they would have paid to purchase a similar (or fancier) phone themselves.”

Granting the FCC the authority to force competition in that market was a boon to consumers, they argue, leading to a burst of innovation in design and function that benefited everyone. And now they want the same for the rented receivers we plug into our TVs, because competition is great.

“That’s why today the President announced that his Administration is calling on the FCC to open up set-top cable boxes to competition,” the post continues. “This will allow for companies to create new, innovative, higher-quality, lower-cost products. Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years to lease a set of behind-the-times boxes, American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget.”

Critics of the FCC’s plan — including FCC commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly — have said that the set-top box proposal is too backward-looking, grumbling about why anyone even cares about cable set-top boxes in the era of over-the-top (internet-delivered) programming and cord-cutting.

And aside from the fact that although pay-TV subscriptions have steadily been declining for a few years, nearly 100 million estimated households still subscribe, they might have a point. But the White House statement anticipates that argument, calling set-top boxes “the mascot for a new initiative,” and “a stand-in” for what happens when you’re locked into a monopoly.

In short, the White House is tackling anti-competitive behavior not just in cable boxes specifically, but across basically the entire economy, with agencies to report back in 60 days on how they will contribute.

It is safe to assume that the President’s support will prove immediately divisive in both the FCC and in Congress, triggering much shouting, because that’s the political world we live in right now.

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