Competition for cable boxes! Hooray! Oh wait…

The FCC is finally enforcing an 11-year-old rule requiring cable companies to allow competition for their set-top boxes. (I’d like to see competition for the companies themselves, as opposed to the fake competition that gives them local monopolies, but whatever.)

After more than a decade of cable-company stalling, FCC head honcho Kevin Martin is mad as hell, and he isn’t going to take it anymore. The cable companies are, effective July 1, finally going to have to separate their navigational (channel-changing) and security (scrambling channels) functions, with the latter to now be served by “cable cards” that plug into the back of the machines.

Now you’ll be able to buy your cable box instead of having to pay the cable company a little extra each month for it. Sounds great, right? The cable industry is just being obstructionist?

Except $5-10 a month sure seems like a better option than hundreds of dollars one time. Then again, over time the box you own yourself becomes a better option, plus you can take it with you when you move (and perhaps, just maybe, at some point, when you change cable companies without moving). But the hard-and-fast deadline is hindering progress on two other fronts:

  • Cable cards have so far proven unreliable, since cable companies have no interest in making them work, and consumers may have difficulty tracking them down. A computer chip inside the box that downloads security settings would be a better deal, but right now cable companies are scrambling to meet the deadline they already have. Even Martin thinks “downloadable security” is a better idea than cable cards and would have let cable companies go to that instead… if only they had made a firm commitment to the technology.
  • The “generic” boxes won’t have interactive-technology functions like VOD and PPV. The cable companies haven’t been able to agree on a protocol with the to-be-manufacturers of generic cable boxes. The electronics companies want the FCC to nudge along progress on that front, but they’re a bit busy with this deadline right now.

I’m almost tempted to say the FCC should grant another one-year extension, this time with interactive-function and downloadable-security provisions attached. All the previous extentions have been the result of cable company stalling; now we’d have one to iron out real problems. Assuming Martin is still head of the FCC in 2008, it would not start a slippery-slope process.

But I have an idea that could prevent this sort of thing in the future. When a regulatory agency extends a deadline, it should act as though the old deadline is still in place, and levy fines (not as big as that for missing the real deadline) against all agencies not already in compliance.

Had that been followed at the start, cable companies would have actually gotten cracking on separation, instead of continuing to stall for over a decade. Extensions would have been made in good faith instead of just to stall.

Of course, the real problem is that the FCC allowed itself to be in the pocket of cable companies for so long…

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