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Consumers are the winners as FCC acts to end cable monopoly on set-top boxes

Something odd is happening within the Federal Communications Commission. The three Democratic members voted Thursday to create more competition within the cable television industry while the two Republicans wanted to shield companies from those capitalist forces.

To be sure, the opponents dressed their votes in other garb – guarding consumer privacy, protecting intellectual property and so on. But the bottom line is that they want to coddle the cable television industry by leaving those companies as the exclusive providers of the set-top boxes with which their customers are intimately familiar, to the tune of more than $200 a year each. Why, now, do they oppose the concept of competition – especially when the order to create it came from the Republican-controlled Congress two years ago?

It’s been a strange concept for years. Customers of cable companies can purchase their own high-speed Internet modems or, if they choose, rent them from the company. But they can’t buy a set-top box to get out from under what is a high rental cost, incurred for the privilege of paying still more money to buy content from the same company.

The majority had it right. With this vote, the FCC will begin drawing up rules, which could take three years to implement. That creates a risk, as the Republican members noted, that rules could become out of date. But that’s an issue to deal with, not a deal breaker. It simply means that the rules have to be flexible enough to account for advancing technology.

It is possible – maybe even likely – that as revenue from the boxes declines, companies will raise cable rates at a pace even faster than consumers have come to loathe. Relief may be less than complete, but that, at least, will give customers a clearer idea of their expenses and their options, which have grown with the explosive growth of streaming content via the Internet.

The cable industry, predictably, is threatening to sue, evidently preferring federal protection to the rigors of competition, but this genie is out of the bottle. All it can really do is delay what is surely inevitable, and what’s the point?

Already, consumers are making entertainment choices other than, or in addition to, cable television. It’s been a relationship that for years has maddeningly tilted away from customers and toward the companies, whose charges rise much faster than inflation. All this vote is doing is giving some influence to consumers by subjecting the cable industry to the same rules with which virtually every other American business must contend. Why should that be a problem?

If that’s too much to expect, then something has gone very wrong.