FiOS TV consumers leasing set-top boxes they don't need, federal suit says

Some FiOS content can be seen on televisions without using set top box from Verizon, but those options are not disclosed to consumers, the suit says.

A suit filed in federal court in Philadelphia claims that Verizon Communications Inc. "deceives" its FiOS customers into leasing extra set-top boxes for $10 a month, amounting to what it says is almost $30 million in total charges on monthly bills.

The suit — the latest flashpoint involving pay-TV set-top boxes — says Verizon does not tell its customers about "alternatives" such as Roku, Amazon Fire Stick TV, and Google Chromecast, devices that enable viewing of FiOS news and entertainment programming without the need to lease a box for each TV in a home.

FiOS content also can be streamed onto televisions using a home's WiFi, but those options are not disclosed to consumers who order Verizon's high-end Quantum service, the suit says.

About 140,000 Verizon customers in Pennsylvania who ordered the Quantum TV service leased more than one set-top box between June 2015 and September 2016. Leasing the first Verizon Quantum set-top box costs $12 a month. Additional Quantum boxes in a home — which the suit claims may be superfluous — cost $10 a month each.

Verizon spokesman Michael Murphy declined to comment Monday on the pending litigation, first filed last year. In court documents, Verizon disputes the claims and says the suit has no merit.

David Senoff, an attorney for Philadelphia firm Anapol Weiss who represents the plaintiffs, also declined to comment Monday.

The lawsuit was initially filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court by plaintiffs who sought class-action status, but Verizon succeeded in having it moved to federal court. Now, the plaintiffs are requesting that the suit be moved back to state court, claiming violations of Pennsylvania consumer law and unfair business practices.

Verizon "deceives and confuses its Quantum customers by remaining silent regarding the availability of set-top box alternatives," the suit says. "Instead, Verizon deceptively claims that a set-top box connection is required to view content on all its customers' television sets."

Consumer advocates and federal regulators have complained for years about set-top boxes, which connect pay-TV services such as Comcast Xfinity, Verizon FiOS or DirecTV to televisions in homes. They are a $20 billion-a-year business and a profit center for the telecom industry. 

In 2016, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, proposed reforming the business by opening it to competition from high-tech Silicon Valley firms such as Google.

But Wheeler, who faced fierce opposition from the pay-TV industry and Hollywood content companies, basically ran out of time to enact the reforms after the  presidential election, which brought to power Republicans opposed to set-top box regulation.

The FCC's new chairman, Ajit Pai, has let the set-top box reforms die.