Consumer groups protest TV bill draft

Public interest groups are opposing an effort to update cable TV laws, which they say would “eviscerate” protections for consumers.

In a letter sent to Capitol Hill on Friday, a coalition of groups including Public Knowledge, the National Consumers League and Consumer Action criticized part of a draft bill released last week by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications.

Ending a requirement that all set-top boxes come with the same cards to descramble signals, they wrote, would lead to unequal treatment for customers who buy boxes at retail locations rather than rent them from their provider.

“This is the wrong time to step backward,” the groups wrote.

Free Press, the Writers Guild of America and the AllVid alliance, which includes TiVo, Sony and Best Buy, also signed on to Friday’s letter.

Walden’s effort to update the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) includes a measure to end the requirement on so-called CableCARDs in rented boxes as well as purchased ones.

The small features inside cable boxes authenticate the connection, and are relied on by companies like TiVo, which sell their own boxes. Supporters of the rules say that they protect smaller companies from being left behind if cable companies move to new encryption methods.

Opponents say that the rules jack up prices on each cable box by as much as $50.

In a memo, Republicans on the committee said that Walden’s draft bill left the Federal Communications Commission “free to use other tools at its disposal to regulate the set-top box marketplace.”

The card requirement is likely to be one of the most contested issues in the new draft bill during a subcommittee hearing on reauthorizing STELA on Wednesday. The law allows satellite companies to beam out-of-market broadcast channels to some rural viewers, but is likely to become ensnarled in larger battles about television rules.