Obama backs effort to give consumers options on cable boxes

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is throwing his weight behind an effort to give consumers more choice when it comes to the cable boxes that control which television channels they watch.

Most TV subscribers lease boxes from their cable service provider. The Federal Communications Commission is pursuing new regulations giving consumers more options to buy elsewhere. Obama will formally back that effort Friday, the White House said.

Jason Furman, who advises the president on economic policy, said in a conference call with reporters that the administration sparingly weighs in on FCC rulemaking. When the president gets involved, Furman says the issue is of "real great importance in his mind to consumers, to competition and to the economy more broadly."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that U.S. consumers typically pay $231 a year to rent their cable boxes. According to one analysis, their costs have nearly tripled since 1994 while the cost of computers, televisions and mobile phones have fallen sharply.

"Like the 1980s with telephones, that's a symptom of a market that is cordoned off from competition. And that's got to change," Furman and fellow economic adviser Jeff Zients wrote.

An industry group made up of cable companies has said the FCC's proposal could lead to higher prices, "eliminates security protections, and provides no reassurance on privacy rights." The group also notes that many consumers are already watching cable through different kinds of apps and devices.

Obama plans to issue an executive order on Friday calling on federal agencies to explore areas where they could promote more competition. The agencies will be required to report back with their findings in 60 days. The White House calls the cable box issue a "mascot" for the broader initiative.