Who Wants a Rule that Wastes Energy and Harms Consumers?

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In recent days, Public Knowledge has been flooding inboxes calling on their network to take a stand on what they describe as an anti-consumer measure in must-pass video legislation that “would make it difficult for consumers to use devices like TiVo DVRs.” They are referring to a provision in both House and Senate versions of STAVRA (The Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act) that would eliminate a 1998 FCC rule known as the “integration ban.” A closer look shows that Public Knowledge is distorting the impact of this change in spite of the fact that these changes would benefit consumers.

The integration ban is an outdated rule which forces cable operators – and cable operators alone – to include a separate piece of descrambling equipment known as a CableCARD in the set-top boxes they lease to customers, which adds costs, wastes energy and provides no benefit. Under a different FCC rule, cable operators also provide CableCARDs to their customers who use CableCARD-enabled devices purchased at retail (such as TiVos) so that those retail devices can access cable programming. The STAVRA integration ban provision simply sunsets the rule that penalizes cable customers who lease their boxes from their operator and has no effect on the latter FCC requirement.

For the unfamiliar, a CableCARD is a device about the size of a credit card that decrypts scrambled cable television signals so cable customers can access them. For the small sliver of cable customers who purchase set-top boxes at retail, CableCARDs are important. They provide access to scrambled cable programming and help ensure “device portability” – meaning that consumers can take the devices they purchase at retail and use them on other cable systems in the U.S.

But for the large majority of cable customers that elect to lease rather than buy a set- top box, there is zero benefit to adding a CableCARD to their boxes. Why?  Because customers leasing their devices, by definition, don’t need portable solutions and because security can be integrated in a leased box (as it was before the integration ban went into effect), providing the same decryption function at lower cost.

That’s what makes Public Knowledge’s support for the current rule all the more baffling. You would think they would jump at the chance to end a mandate that adds millions of dollars in costs and forces consumers to foot the bill for the roughly 500 million kilowatt hours consumed by CableCARDs in leased boxes each year. They should be particularly supportive because the proposed reforms merely delete the tech mandate on cable operator leased set-top boxes and do nothing to disturb the underlying authority of the FCC under section 629 to support a retail market for set- top boxes. But sadly, PK appears oblivious to this injustice, perhaps blinded by their seemingly endless desire to criticize the cable industry, even when the true injustice of the rule falls on consumers.

To be clear, if the integration ban ends, cable will still support the retail set top market. Ending the rule that dictates what goes into cable operator leased boxes will have no impact on consumers or how cable operators support retailboxes. Cable operators are eager to let their customers access programming on as many devices as possible. Cable operators have enabled devices like tablets, computers, and Smart TVs to receive cable content using a variety of technologies.  None of these devices use CableCARDs, none rely on techniques mandated for use in the cable operator’s leased set-top boxes, no FCC rule required this outcome, and they all have been wildly successful.

The logic of maintaining the ban is that, if cable operators are forced to use CableCARDs in their leased boxes, only then will they support them in retail devices. It’s absurd logic.  As we’ve said, we want customers to access cable content however they want. And if that means the need for CableCARDs to decrypt video signals, then that’s exactly what we’ll do. But forcing cable operators to use them in leased devices and requiring them to get government approval to experiment with a different technology while every other device manufacturer is free to innovate without FCC permission, benefits no one, least of all the consumers that Public Knowledge arguably seeks to serve.