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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

If you have cable TV, you probably have one of those clunky little boxes on the top of your TV set. Well, starting this Sunday, you can get your box a makeover. The FCC is requiring cable companies to modify the boxes so they can be used with any cable service.

MARKETPLACE's Amy Scott joins us now. And Amy, tell us specifically about this rule change.

AMY SCOTT: Well, some of us are old enough to remember the days when you couldn't buy your own telephone. You had to rent one from the phone company. The cable set-top box is similar. Eleven years ago, as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress voted to open up the boxes to competition so that consumers could buy their own, but the market has never really developed and a lot of us are still paying the five bucks or so a month to rent these things.

So the FCC passed a new rule. As of Sunday, cable companies will be required to provide a cable card that can be used in competing set-top boxes or cable-ready television sets.

BROOKS: So this sounds like a good deal for consumers.

Ms. SCOTT: Well, like the opening of the phone market, the idea is that competition will lead to lower prices and better services. Jason Oxman is a spokesman with the Consumer Electronics Association; the trade group represents companies that make this competing equipment. And he says the new rule is designed to give customers more choice.

Mr. JASON OXMAN (Spokesman, Consumer Electronics Association): Freeing the consumer from using a cable company-provided set-top box allows the consumer to access not only competitive equipment, but more competitive service offerings as well. And that opens up the cable network to more competition.

BROOKS: So Amy, why would consumers want to buy their own cable boxes?

Ms. SCOTT: Well, in addition to saving those rental fees, some people just want different services than their cable companies provide. TiVo, for example, makes, you know, set-top boxes that offer programming guides and, of course, let you record your favorite shows.

Other people just don't want these boxes cluttering up their living rooms at all. You know, many new television sets actually come equipped with a slot for these cable cards, and more people are using what are called media centers, which are basically home computers that allow you to watch and record programming. These have the cable card slots, as well.

BROOKS: So Amy, how is the cable industry responding to all this?

Ms. SCOTT: They've been dragging their feet a bit. The rule has been postponed several times. The industry says making these new boxes is going to cost them at least $600 million a year. At least one major provider, Cablevision, has been granted a temporary exemption. Also, right now the cards are just one way, meaning that consumers who use other boxes will be able to receive the cable signal but not use some of the interactive services like video on demand, so it may take a while to really see the benefits from this.

BROOKS: Okay. Thanks, Amy. That's Amy Scott of Public Radio's daily business show, MARKETPLACE. It's produced by American Public Media.

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