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Unlock the cable set-top box, Democrats urge

A group of Senate and House Democrats are getting behind the FCC in pushing for rules that will force cable companies to open up the set-top box business.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Congressional Democrats are throwing their weight behind a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to bring competition to the cable set-top box market.

At a press conference Thursday, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Mark Takano of California, Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut pushed back against critics of the plan and urged the agency to adopt the measure that will open the set-top box market to competitors. The debate over the FCC's proposal, which was introduced in February and could be voted on as soon as this summer, has been heating up. In April, the Obama administration took the unusual step of filing comments in support of the FCC proposal.

The proposal has been pitched as a way to give consumers cheaper and more innovative alternatives to the set-top boxes available from their cable companies. Today, 99 percent of pay-TV subscribers rent set-top boxes and spend an average of $231 a year to lease these devices, according to a congressional study. But critics, such as the cable companies and Roku, a maker of streaming-video devices, say an FCC mandate on set-top boxes could add costs, threaten consumer privacy and hurt smaller content producers.

"Opponents of the FCC's proposal to unlock the cable box have thrown together a salad of criticisms to derail it and have kept the market locked up for 20 years at a yearly intake of $20 billion," Eshoo said at the press conference. "It's time for innovation and competition in this market so consumers can finally win."

Markey, who helped write the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which he said mandates the set-top box be opened to competitors, likened today's set-top boxes to the old black rotary phones that the Ma Bell phone monopoly forced consumers to rent until 1968. He said opening this market will spur innovation and lower prices.

But critics say the FCC's rules are unnecessary in a market that's moving away from a box in favor of apps that run on mobile devices, gaming consoles and TVs.

"Today, anyone with an Internet connection can buy a streaming device for less than $50 and access thousands of movies and TV shows, including from networks traditionally only available through your cable company's box, such as ESPN, CBS, Disney, Showtime and others," Roku CEO Anthony Wood said in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in April.

Wood added that the regulation would actually increase costs, which would be passed on to consumers.

"This might seem like a great deal for consumers and companies like mine," he said. "But once you start peeling back the layers, the picture changes."