Three months ago, when the DC Circuit struck down the FCC’s “Cable Cap”—which prevented any one cable company from serving more than 30% of US households out of fear that he larger cable companies would use their “gatekeeper” power to restrict programming—the New York Times bemoaned the decision:
The problem with the cap is not that it is too onerous, but that it is not demanding enough.
Even with the cap — and satellite television — there is a disturbing lack of price competition. The cable companies have resisted letting customers choose, a la carte, the channels they actually watch….
[The FCC] needs to ensure that customers have an array of choices among cable providers, and that there is real competition on price and program offerings.
Perhaps the Times‘ editors should have consulted with the Lead Technology Writer of their excellent BITS blog. Nick Bilton might have told him the truth: “Cable Freedom Is a Click Away.” That’s the title of his excellent survey of devices and services (Hulu, Boxee, iTunes, Joost, YouTube, etc.) that allow users to get cable television programming without a cable subscription.
Nick explains that consumers can “cut the video cord” and still find much, if not all, their favorite cable programming—as well as the vast offerings of online video—without a hefty monthly subscription. (Adam recently described how Clicker.com is essentially TV guide for the increasing cornucopia of Internet video.) This makes the 1992 Cable Act’s requirement that the FCC impose a cable cap nothing more than the vestige of a bygone era of platform scarcity, predating not just the Internet, but also competing subscription services offered by satellite and telcos over fiber. That’s precisely what we argued in PFF’s amicus brief to the DC Circuit a year ago, and largely why the court ultimately struck down the cap.
Bilton notes that “this isn’t as easy as just plugging a computer into a monitor, sitting back and watching a movie. There’s definitely a slight learning curve.” But, as he describes, cutting the cord isn’t rocket science. If getting used to using a wireless mouse is the thing that most keeps consumers “enslaved” to the cable “gatekeepers” the FCC frets so much about, what’s the big deal? Does government really need to set aside the property and free speech rights of cable operators to run their own networks just because some people may not be as quick to dump cable as Bilton? Is the lag time between early adopters and mainstream really such a problem that we would risk maintaining outdated systems of architectural censorship (Chris Yoo’s brilliant term) that give government control over speech in countless subtle and indirect ways? Continue reading →