FCC turns off cable monopoly on boxes

Commission votes 4-1 to make devices available commercially

WASHINGTON — In just over two years cable’s monopoly hold on the set-top box will end and consumers will be able to walk into a store and buy their own set-top device.

At the direction of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission voted 4-1 Thursday to force cablers to make the set-top boxes available commercially. The FCC’s action also means that consumer electronics makers will be able to build other devices such as DVD players, VCRs and computers with all of the functions available in a set-top box.

The retail distribution of set-top boxes will promote “consumer acceptance for digital television,” said Michael Petricone, deputy general counsel at the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Assn. In addition to the usual tricks such as viewing pay TV channels and ordering pay-per-view movies, the next generation of set-top, or internal, boxes will allow consumers to watch digital television programming on their regular analog TV sets.

While cable-ready TVs are already available, cable subscribers still need some form of a set-top box if they want to subscribe to pay TV channels such as HBO or Showtime or have access to pay-per-view features.

Just like the phone company

Like Petricone, FCC chairman Bill Kennard compared the FCC action to an earlier agency decision that ended AT&T’s monopoly on the sale of telephones. “We would like to have an era in this country where anybody can plug in a set-top box just the way that you can buy a telephone today in a retail store and plug it into a phone jack in your home,” Kennard said.

Under the FCC’s order, after July 1, 2000, the cable industry must agree to technical standards that allow other companies to sell set-top boxes and internal devices that are technically compatible with every cable system in the country.

In addition to opening up the cable set-top box business to other competitors, the FCC also ruled that by 2005 cablers must stop their current practice of selling boxes that can be used only with a particular cable system. Cablers object to that provision and promised to fight it.

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