White House Urges FCC to Break Up Monopoly on Outdated Cable Boxes

The Obama administration asks the Federal Communications Commission to open up cable box production to the tech industry.

by / April 15, 2016

The White House isn’t happy with its TV cable box — or the thousands of cable boxes that millions of Americans must pay for each year to watch their programming.

In a post and staff brief released on April 15, President Barack Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to open up cable box production to the wider tech industry. The White House decried current offerings from the large telecommunications companies as overpriced and overrated. The administration estimated that on average, citizens pay more than $200 a year to rent the devices from cable and satellite providers.

The White House’s Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, voiced confidence in the private sector's ability to create cheaper and higher-functioning cable boxes. In a co-authored blog, they said the tech sector could not only provide boxes that answered cable needs, but also enable advanced functionality.

“Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years to lease a set of behind-the-times boxes,” the two said, “American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget.”

The effort is part of a broader effort by the White House to dislodge traditional or outdated regulatory policies that prevent a competitive marketplace. As part of his announcement, the president gave all federal departments 60 days to investigate and report on potential ways to free companies from similarly encumbering restrictions.

As might be expected, the cable industry is still in a state of recoil over the White House’s stance. It argued that the administration is meddling in an independent FCC decision-making process and dismissing the disruptive contractual impacts that such policy changes would inflict upon the telecommunications companies. In a blog post, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association expressed this dismay while alluding to ulterior political motives it did not define specifically.

"We are disappointed that White House political advisers are choosing to inject politics and inflammatory rhetoric into a regulatory proceeding by what is supposed to be an independent agency," the NCTA said  "To see the White House take political credit for the actions of the 'independent' agency and direct it to reach a specific conclusion even before the record has been assembled, shatters that faith and undermines the commission’s credibility."

The post went on to say that tech providers associated with the White House, like Amazon, Google and Apple, have already been able to create their own competitive offerings without any policy changes on cable boxes — such video services include products like Amazon Prime, Chromecast and Apple TV.

Even so, the NCTA did not dismiss the White House claim that the boxes could be manufactured more affordably or improved for consumers.   

In a tweet, the White House summarized its intentions for overpriced cable boxes in a GIF depicting a hydraulic press crushing a cable box.