Hey, cable companies! Stop boxing in consumers.

By David ButlerConsumer Reports

Imagine your Internet service provider charging you to rent a laptop so you can send out your tweets, update your Facebook status, do your online banking, and buy your holiday gifts from Amazon.com. Well, that’s essentially what cable companies do: They charge you to rent a set-top box to get programming on your TV—and reap tons of money from those fees.

The federal government did come up with rules to promote more options for getting cable programs delivered to your TV without set-top box rental. But so far these rules have not delivered consumers much choice, whether it’s a box from a store that can deliver all the cable content you pay for or a TV that doesn’t need any kind of box.

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These rules clearly need to be reprogrammed. But with a special-interest cable giveaway having been slipped into an unrelated bill, the cable companies are trying to pull a fast one in Congress.

Learn how to save money on triple-play cable services. And check our reviews of telecom services. And if you want to get rid of cable TV altogether, find the best indoor TV antenna and streaming media player.

This sneaky item could actually make a bad situation worse, since it would harm the government's ability to adopt better rules for set-top boxes. In fact, it would wipe out one of the key rules, undermining the entire system, with no plan for a better alternative.

This cable giveaway is tucked inside the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act, or STAVRA, a bill that deals with satellite TV. This bill would have to be approved by the end of the year, or some satellite-TV customers could lose access to certain broadcast TV programming. The cable industry is using this important legislation to its advantage. This issue is likely to come to a head after the November midterm elections, when lawmakers plan to return to Washington for a lame-duck session.

Cable companies might think they can get away with this tactic, but we’re fighting back. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is putting pressure on Congress to stop this industry maneuver, and we’re going to keep shining a spotlight on the issue to help ensure you get a better deal. Stay tuned.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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