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For many customers, cable may be getting even more expensive. A new FCC ruling lets cable providers require customers to rent set-top boxes for their basic tiers (including local stations). With HD boxes running around $10 a month for each TV and using more power than the fridge, this might be the straw the breaks the cable subscriber's back. Here are your other options.
The Issue: New Added Expenses for Those with Multiple TVs or PC Tuner Cards
For a long time, you needed a cable box to get higher-tiered cable channels, but if all you wanted was your local news in HD, you could plug the cable directly into your TV and call it a day—no box rental fees required for that TV set. Now cable operators can scramble those signals, thanks to the FCC's recent ruling (which is a change from an FCC rule in October that local TV channel signals had to be transmitted "in the clear.")
The scrambled signals mean that cable providers can require you to rent a set-top box or other equipment for each TV you own. It's being pushed by the FCC and cable companies as "a win for consumers" with the explanation that this allows cable companies to easily activate or deactivate cable service without having to send the cable guy over.
While it might be more convenient for the few times in your life you'll need your service activated or deactivated, in reality, the biggest benefit will be for the cable companies.
As Consumer World reports, the first cable company to take advantage of this rule is RCN, a small provider on the east coast. After RCN scrambled local basic TV channels, customers without a cable box found them all inoperative. As part of the new FCC ruling, cable providers have to give customers one or two free devices to decrypt the new signals. However, this provision only lasts for up to two years (depending on customer's level of service), if you have more than one or two televisions you'll probably have to pay for other boxes, and the free boxes don't have to be high-def ones. So RCN offers a standard definition box, but those who want HD will need to rent a box for $10 a month on each television.
RCN is a small cable operator, but Consumer World says that Comcast is expected to encrypt its basic channels as well. Most people with higher cable tiers already have cable boxes, but if you have a basic plan for the local channels, your university or apartment complex offers local cable channels, or have a screen connected directly to the cable and not a set-top box (like a computer with a TV tuner), this is an extra monthly cost you don't need. Basic cable is already about $25 (at least in my area) before taxes; with the HD box rental, that's like a 30% price hike for each TV set.
So here are some options, particularly if you only want basic, local channels in high definition.
Indoor Antennas: Over-the-Air Channels in HD for a One-Time Fee
For about a one-time investment (about $35), you can watch network television in high-definition with no monthly fees. The Mohu Leaf Paper-Thin Indoor Antenna, for example, hooks up to your digital-ready television with a 6-foot cable and streams broadcast shows without taking up any space. If you need a bit more power from your antenna, we recommend the Clearstream2. You'll need one antenna for every television you use, but you can buy 3 Mohu Leafs for the same price you'd pay to rent one HD cable box for 12 months.
Streaming Services Like Hulu and Netflix: Lots of Shows and Videos, with Limitations
On-demand streaming services Hulu and Netflix both give you access to many television shows and movies. With Hulu, you can watch shows from current seasons, but you might have to wait as much as eight days after new episodes air before watching them, depending on the network. Hulu Plus, for $8 a month, gives you access to previous seasons, but it's also still ad-supported. Netflix doesn't stream current seasons at all.
You could also buy individual shows' latest TV episodes on Amazon Prime, but for $2.99 for HD (or $1.99 regular) each, it's probably not cost-effective if you want to keep up with your favorite shows.
None of these services offer all shows on all broadcast stations, but depending on what you like to watch and your patience, they could fill in the void for you when you cut the cable cord. (Note: If you don't have a "smart" internet-connected television, you'll also need some way to stream to your TV, such as a set-top box like the Roku or Apple TV, your own home theater PC, or a way to connect your computer to your TV.)
Aereo: Local Broadcast Channels with No Cables or Cords, Currently Only in New York
Aereo is a groundbreaking service that streams live broadcast TV and more than 20 other channels in HD online, with no set-top boxes, antennas, or other devices required. It even has a DVR feature. The downside is this service is only available in the Metro New York area (including Long Island and New Jersey). Plus, as you might expect, cable companies and broadcast stations (which collect retransmission fees from cable and satellite operators) are in an uproar about this. (Fox and CBS, in fact, are considering switching to a subscription-only model as a result.)
If you're in the New York City area, Aereo has a Try for Free plan that gives you access for up to an hour a day of live broadcast TV. Its other plans are really affordable, compared to cable. The 24-hour day pass offers 3 hours of DVR space and the ability to record two shows at once (and watch them for up to 10 days later), for $1/day plus tax, and higher plans starting at $8/month for unlimited live local TV viewing and 20 hours of DVR space. The service works on all the major browsers, iOS devices, AirPlay, and Roku.
I'm watching the latest episode of Glee live as I write this, and it looks and streams well. Aereo hopes to expand; hopefully the media giants don't kill it.
Coming Soon: Broadcast TV Streaming on Roku
If you can wait, an easier solution may be in the works. Roku is said to be joining up with Voxx to combine broadcast TV streaming and the other content available via Roku. It's slated for the end of this year.
Download TV Shows from the Web
If you don't need to watch shows live, as they're streaming, you can download the many videos available online using tools like BitTorrent or Usenet With a little work, you can even automatically download TV shows as soon as they're aired, turning your computer into a personal video recorder.
We've talked about cutting the cable cord plenty of times around here, because, let's face it, it's expensive and the constant new charges like this latest set-top box rental requirement are onerous. (If you're paying for cable, you're mostly paying for the sports channels.)
Consumer World says that some RCN customers have been able to negotiate a free HD box for a year, so if you want to keep cable, you can just ask to have your bill reduced.
Otherwise, check out more of our tips on ditching cable and using cable alternatives.
Photo by Juraj Uher.