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The FCC Frenzy Over Controlling Your Cable Box

By Jonathan Krim
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page E01

Whether you cringe at the sight of your monthly cable bill or think you get your money's worth, chances are you long ago stopped noticing the $3 or so a month you pay for the control box that allows you to get premium and digital programs.

It's one of those innocuous little charges, like the environmental disposal fee at the oil-change joint, that nicks you on so many bills through the year that if you stopped to count them all they would probably add up to a mortgage payment.

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But the nondescript cable box is the object of a lot of frenzied lobbying over at the Federal Communication Commission these days, with consequences for your pocketbook and how you watch television.

As with their service, cable companies have a monopoly on these "set-top" boxes, which haven't changed much over the past 15 years. If you want digital service or premium channels such as HBO, you need the box, and you use the one provided by your cable company.

About 10 years ago, people on Capitol Hill and elsewhere began to wonder if that was such a good idea. In addition to concerns that the cable people had another cozy source of protected revenue, they didn't like that you couldn't take the box with you if you moved.

So Congress, and then the FCC, embarked on plans to create competition for set-top boxes that deliver digital programs. (Digital programming offers more channels and better picture and audio quality.)

That led to several years of wrangling over everything from technical standards to make sure other boxes would work to standards to make sure copyrighted programs couldn't be illegally copied using other devices and then shipped all over the Internet.

Finally, there was progress. The cable guys and the other-device guys agreed on a special card, known as a CableCARD, that would need to be inserted into an approved alternate box for it to work.

As this was going on, technology companies got busy thinking up all kinds of new gear that could also serve as your cable box: Digital television sets with the capability built right in. Media-center computers that could control cable tuning, stereo systems and electronic games. Newfangled hand-held devices.

Some of these devices began to get built and tested with the CableCARDs. Some are even in general circulation.


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