THE BLOG

Congress Feeling Pressure to Pull Plug on TV Set top Box Choices

05/12/2014 02:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 11, 2014

Cable TV is utilized by many Americans every day. It provides access to programs that people want and some they don't. And polls show that few believe they are getting good value for the billions paid to cable companies every year. Complaints go beyond cost to quality, reliability, backward technology and poor service. Now Congress is being pressured by big cable lobbyists to further lock in customers and limit our choices even more.

While innovative companies and better technology offer hope to improve how we watch TV, Congress is being asked to reopen a previously won battle for consumers that allows people to buy their own retail TV "set top box" -- rather than having to rent the one their cable company offers.

Nearly 20 years ago, Congress gave consumers the right to buy their own set top box, and the consumer electronics market has since offered real choices like digital video recorders, Roku and Apple TV. However, many large cable operators have made actual use of any competing devices very difficult. And the legislative protection for consumer choice is now under attack.

In the process of renewing expiring legislation, the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act [STELA -- which makes broadcast programming available to satellite TV providers like DISH and DirecTV] lawmakers are feeling pressure from cable TV companies to invalidate the existing law that ensures that people who buy their own box can continue to access all the cable channels they are paying for. Buying a box that would be limited in what it can deliver would eliminate real choice and make the more expensive rental box the only real option remaining.

My tech trade association has supported disruptive competition and innovation for more than 40 years and has spoken out on this issue before and has this week launched a website, ConsumerTVChoice.net, to promote competition and choice in the so-called TV set-top box marketplace.

For consumers, competition means lower prices and the ability to watch the content they want on the device of their choosing. But for the overall tech industry and others that thrive on an innovative economy this legislative sneak attack is an example of how entrenched special interests can promote misguided policies to protect a few companies and wind up hurting real innovators, start-ups as well as consumers.

If the next video recorder, smart phone or fax machine is crushed by dominant network providers as soon as the market starts to take off, how will the U.S. continue its leadership as an innovator?

Just looking back a few decades we can see where the country has faced turning points and made decisions in favor of competition -- and that those decisions literally changed the future.

The Justice Department and many of the founding companies of my tech trade group fought in the 1970s for the ability of third party developers to write independent software for IBM mainframes. In the 1970s, a critical debate was over the right of consumers to plug non-AT&T phones into their wall jacks.

The outcome of these battles have been critical to the thriving tech industry we have today. The IBM antitrust battles were vital for the development of an independent software industry and gave rise of Silicon Valley as we know it today. The battle over allowing third party phone devices resolved in favor of consumers too, and paved the way for innovations like the first cordless phones, answering machines, fax machines, computer modems and game consoles.

If you care about your cable TV choices, please tell Congress not add anticompetitive provisions into STELA that would undermine the FCC's statutory consumer protection mandates regarding open standards for electronic boxes that can access both your cable programming and online video.

Today the issue may be about how we watch TV, and that's important, but the principle behind this issue, competition, is worth preserving and fighting for. If we let incumbent companies pressure lawmakers for policies that crush the business model of newcomers, it chips away at the climate of innovation and the resolve of everyone to fight such short-sighted plans.