Dem senators push FCC for rule on cable boxes

Two Senate Democrats have given up their opposition to a must-pass satellite TV bill and are taking their concerns to the Federal Communications Commission. 

Sens. 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 (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) on Thursday called on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to quickly start developing rules to foster competition in cable set-top boxes once the bill passes.  

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The two have expressed serious concern over a provision of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) reauthorization that would end the security standards in cable boxes. 

The senators and companies, such as TiVo, argue the change would allow cable companies to lock out competitors and give customers no other options than to buy their box from the cable company. The cable industry has argued the standards are costly to consumers and inefficient, and have urged their repeal. 

The provision on cable boxes was tucked into a bill that would allow satellite companies to continue to provide nonlocal broadcast channels to individuals living in areas with weak local broadcast signals. The House approved an updated version Wednesday that was negotiated with the Senate, and the two senators dropped their holds. 

The law expires at the end of the year, which would leave more than 1.5 million without those broadcast channels if not extended. 

Markey had pushed an amendment to have the FCC develop new cable box standards before the current ones are phased out. The legislation passed Wednesday would end what is known as the "integration ban" after a year and would require a working group to recommend new standards in nine months. 

"Without strong FCC action, consumers may be left with no choice but to rent set top boxes from their cable providers in perpetuity," the senators said in their letter, urging the FCC chairman to form a new working group as soon as the legislation is passed. 

The senators also sent letters to the 10 largest cable and satellite TV companies asking for information on the number of customers and the amount of choice for cable boxes today. 

"Just as consumers can select their mobile phone from an increasing array of meddles, regardless of carrier, consumers today should also be able to choose from a large selection of smart set top boxes," they wrote in the separate letter.