Pressure builds over satellite TV bill

Lawmakers are coming under pressure to oppose part of a must-pass satellite TV bill.

A half-dozen consumer advocacy groups on Thursday sent letters to every lawmaker in the Senate asking them to block a provision that would end a current requirement that all set-top TV boxes use the same decryption technology.

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The current standard “is a structural guarantee that cable operators will not roll out new features or services on their systems that will only work with the cable operator’s own set-top boxes,” the groups told lawmakers. “These rules have allowed innovative devices like TiVo to develop and compete in the video device marketplace.”

The provision killing the current rules is contained in an otherwise largely uncontroversial bill allowing satellite TV companies to beam out-of-market broadcast channels to about 1 million rural subscribers. It is one of the few bills that is practically guaranteed to be considered in the narrow lame duck.  

Instead of eliminating the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyJoseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies MORE (D-Mass.) has pushed an amendment to have the agency first develop a new standard that would let companies develop new technology and ensure that cable companies can’t cut others out.

Thursday’s letter could inspire more lawmakers to side with Markey.

“If some insist on including special interest provisions to pad the pockets of the cable industry in legislation designed to keep the government open, we urge you to reject such a cynical, anti-consumer move,” the organizations told lawmakers.

Killing the current rules has been a major goal of cable companies, who say that they are out of date, prevent them from innovating new technologies and make people’s TV service more expensive.

A spokesman with the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said that the groups’ letter “completely ignores the clear consumer benefits that flow from eliminating an outdated technology mandate that wastes energy and adds unnecessary costs to leased set top boxes.”

The groups signing the letter are making a “conscious decision to remain willfully blind” to the changes in the industry and “the manifest injustice of a rule that saddles cable customers with leased devices ... with added costs for no appreciable benefit,” Brian Dietz said.

The organizations signing Thursday’s letter are Common Cause, Consumer Action, Consumers Union, Free Press Action Fund, the Parents Television Council and Public Knowledge.