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.