Consumer Groups Back Markey Set-Top Amendment

Want FCC to Mandate Successor Technology Before Scrapping Integration Ban

Consumer activist groups and fans of the FCC's ban on integrated set-tops have gotten behind a proposed amendment to the STAVRA satellite bill that would require the FCC to set a new competitive set-top standard before eliminating the ban.

Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and Free Press cited an amendment proposed by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) for the STAVRA markup Sept. 17 that would require the FCC to implement a "platform-neutral" system of insuring the competitive availability of competitive navigation devices before the ban on integrated set-tops can be eliminated. (The current bill has no such built-in delay in eliminating the ban.)

Cable operators strongly support scrapping the ban.

The CableCARD was the FCC's hardware solution to trying to create a more robust retail market for digital set-top devices by separating the surfing and security functions, the latter supplied by a hardware CableCARD add-on--cable ops had pushed for holding off until there was a software solution. Both the FCC and industry agree that robust market has not materialized.

But the groups say the ban remains a consumer-friendly move that cable ops should not be allowed to end-run via the satellite bill, and said so in a letter to Sen. Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.) and ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.)

"Since 1996, Congress has made it clear that consumers should have the option to buy their own set-top boxes if they don't wish to pay the increasingly high costs to rent them from their cable provider," they said. "As written, STAVRA would eliminate this important consumer protection. It is curious why this language, straight out of the cable industry wish list, is even included in a must-pass bill about satellite TV.

"This provision is not necessary, but fixing it is simple: Congress should direct the FCC to set a new technological standard for keeping competitive video devices, before eliminating the old rules. We understand that Senator Markey plans to introduce a simple amendment to STAVRA that will ensure consumer choices in the video device market. We support that amendment."

The cable industry has long argued that the ban on integrated surfing and security forced them to deal with the old technology of CableCARD security hardware, while they were in the midst of developing a downloadable security system that would be cheaper, easier, and more elegant. The result, they said, was unnecessary costs to the digital set-tops they lease to subscribers without providing any tangible benefit to consumers.

In imposing the ban, the FCC, under then-chairman Kevin Martin, concluded that while it recognized the advantages of downloadable security and encouraged it, it could not be sure the industry would deliver on the promises of that technology in a timely fashion.