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Why we don’t buy cable TV set-top boxes

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The Federal Communications Commission has released a report from an advisory committee on how to encourage competition in the market for set-top boxes. 

Right now, if you don’t want to rent a cable set-top box from your cable company, you don’t have a lot of options. And it’s kind of a pain. You still need to rent a card from your cable company to run the box. It’s almost like the days when you had to rent your phone from the phone company. 

But when that changed, “a market developed overnight,” says Edgar Dworsky, founder of  “You could go to the store, buy a telephone.  How come that hasn’t developed the same way with cable companies?”

The report comes up with two options for solving this problem. One would let you buy a cable box that could search for, say, your favorite movie.

“You search for the name of a movie, and if it’s airing on TV, it’ll show you those results. But if it’s on Netflix, it’ll show you the movie result there,” says  John Bergmayer, an attorney at the consumer group Public Knowledge.

Public Knowledge was on the advisory committee, along with experts from the cable and tech industries.

Bergmayer says cable companies don’t want cable boxes sending you to Netflix. They prefer a second option, that could eventually replace cable boxes with an app. The cable companies emphasize that there are already lots of ways to get your cable.

“There’s never been more choice and competition for consumers and how they receive their content,” says Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Still, some consumer advocates wonder why, if you do want a set-top box,  you can’t just buy one as easily as you’d buy a cell phone or TV for that matter. This is something the FCC is still wrestling with. It’s now in the information gathering phase, accepting comments on the advisory committee’s report.



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