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Martin Sets FCC Vote on Digital Must-Carry for Cable Operators

Rejecting strong opposition from the cable industry, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin is moving to require cable system operators to offer consumers both analog and fully digital signals for TV channels after the digital conversion, unless they provide a digital signal and converter box to every household.

Mr. Martin has scheduled a vote on a proposal for an FCC meeting Tuesday. Mr. Martin has several times offered proposals, only to withdraw them at the last minute.

The debate stems from the problems created by the digital transition, scheduled for 2009. At that time, some households may have digital sets while others don’t, and cable systems, as they convert to digital transmission, may not have completed needed upgrades to handle multiple HD video streams plus the Internet and regular programming.

Federal law requires cable homes with analog sets be able to continue watching TV. The FCC order, which is not yet public, apparently would interpret that as requiring cable companies to provide every cable household with fully digital signals and $50 analog converter boxes or to send analog and digital signals for hundreds of must-carry stations down the cable without degrading picture quality.

Broadcasters support the FCC on this point. They fear cable systems, their bandwidth taxed, will drop or degrade the quality of some local channels to maintain profitable cable services and channels; they want the FCC to require that cable systems carry local signals in full quality.

The National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television has urged the FCC to “put consumers first.”

Cable systems operators argue that any such regulation would be little more than an unconstitutional must-carry requirement. They contend the law requires cable companies to provide a viewable signal, not to pay for expensive converter boxes.

They also warn that the alternative of providing both analog and digital signals would reverse past decisions permitting video compression and could limit viewers’ content choices.

“Forced dual carriage of broadcast signals would inevitably—and impermissibly—crowd out other programming, including more HD signals,” the National Cable & Telecommunications Association warned in a filing with the FCC.

(Editor: Horowitz)

Comments (3)

Kyle:

If I'm reading this right, if the cable companies get their way, after the transition, if you don't have a digital box on a TV, you won't get ANY local stations?

Les:

No, that is not correct. I am a cable headend engineer for a smaller MSO in Kansas. I would expect that many smaller cable operators were planning on simply using an 8VSB digital receiver to receive the digital off-air which has composite video and audio outputs. These outputs would be connected to a modulator in the headend that puts the signal out the appropriate analog channel.

Granted, in this case, the digital signal would be converted back to analog for continued use with current analog TV's.

Martins plan, in my opinion, will force cable companies (remember that cable companies are private businesses) to spend millions of dollars on mandatory deployment of these digital signals which one would think will drive the cost of cable services up.

Many smaller MSO's simply do not have the kinds of funds to support this ruling and I would guess will force some if not many to sell their franchises to the Telco's or the bigger cable companies.

Look at it this way. The new Motorola DCH digital settops are around $250 each. The company that I work for has only 20,000 subscribers.

20,000 subs times $250 is $5 million and that puts only one settop in each subscribers home. (2) per home is more likely so were talking $10 million and this does even include the headend equipment that it would take to covert this to the digital signal that the FCC wants to put out.

Very conservatively, it could cost around $20,000 to $30,000 per headend site for the necessary digital equipment. My company has around (35) headends so were talking another $1 million in headend equipment.

So, the total comes up to around $11 million for 20,000 subs. Only 20,000 subs = $11 million. This will bankrupt smaller MSO's, many of whom have not even begun or barely begun the conversion to digital.

I could see Martin's plan rolling in over a 5 to 10 year period as American's slowly convert to digital from analog but to mandate a conversion of off-airs to digital by 2009 is not financially feasible for many cable operators.

Once again, remember that many cable operators are still private businesses that do not receive government grants and loans like many telco's do.

Jeff:

Also,
Cable companies have to already pay for the off air retransmission of the digital/analog signals. Sometimes the same if not more than other programmers ie: Discovery,SciFi, ect. Unlike the local off airs the satellite received programming allows cable companies a small amount of air time within the programming allowing for Ad Insertion allowing a small amount of revenue to the cable company for mostly local business commercials and such. These local off airs are asking too much and the FCC are catering to them WAY too much. So much like Les said the cable companies will start dropping like flies or if I had my choice I would lower my rates and drop the Off Airs from my lineup all together. I dont see Sinclair buying settops for all the cable customers to receive his signals!! My .02$
P.S. Most cheap 8vsb receivers w/ analog out do not pass Closed Caption info ... Watch out .. Thats another FCC violation.

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