WASHINGTON, DC -- For many years, cable TV customers who didn't want to pay the extra fee to rent or buy a set-top box could still see plenty of channels by connecting a cable directly to their TV sets. Even today, it's possible to see most of Time Warner's analog channels and local broadcast digital channels without a set-top box. But soon, converter boxes may be required for all channels, thanks to recent FCC action.
The Associated Press reports that the Commission voted Friday to eliminate a long-standing ban against the encryption of basic cable channels.
FCC regulations require cable companies to provide a basic service tier, which, "is required to include, at a minimum, the local broadcast television stations and the public, educational and governmental (PEG) access channels that the operator may be required to offer." For many years, those regulations went a step further, mandating the basic tier be available without requiring subscribers to rent or buy additional equipment (like a set-top box) on top of their cable subscription fee. Cable companies have only been allowed to encrypt the signals of other tiers, above and beyond basic cable.
However, the AP article says cable companies have been complaining to the government for quite some time about the fact that the ban makes it extremely easy for people to steal cable TV service. A spokesman for the cable industry said much of the theft is committed by people who only subscribe to high-speed internet service, but then split the cable to feed their TV sets as well.
According to AP's report, neither the FCC nor the cable industry could tell how many people had been stealing signals, or how many households will need to begin using set-top boxes. The article also says Time Warner Cable, which provides cable service throughout Central New York, declined to say when it would start encrypting basic cable.
But when it does, all customers will need set-top boxes for every TV set they want to connect to cable. Cable companies will benefit from getting more set-top box rentals, from a reduction in theft, and from being able to cut back on labor costs associated with sending crews into the field to physically connect or disconnect individual customers.
On the plus side for customers, the ruling paves the way for all-digital delivery of TV signals. Right now, basic cable channels are provided as analog signals, which take up more bandwidth than digital channels. By removing the analog signals altogether, more bandwidth will become available. That bandwidth could allow cable companies to add even more channels, or to devote more bandwidth to other services such as high-speed internet.