FCC makes decisions in digital TV requirements

Cable television won more than it lost in critical decisions the Federal Communications Commission has made on digital television and program-access requirements.

Cablers will have to pipe not only the digital signal that must-carry broadcast stations transmit but also an analog version so that subscribers with analog sets will still be able to view broadcast channels following the government-mandated switch to all-DTV in February 2009. Cablers will have to convert the digital signal to analog either at the head end or through a converter box at the subscriber end.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. had promised a legal fight if this proposal had been approved together with FCC chairman Kevin Martin’s original proposal that cable be required to provide a dual signal (or accept so-called dual carriage) in perpetuity.

Martin’s inability to muster enough votes from other commissioners was the reason the proposal was amended to a three-year period (after which the FCC can renew it, should the agency decide it is still necessary). It is also a main reason the FCC meeting did not start until 8:40 p.m. on Tuesday — more than 11 hours behind schedule.

In filings with the commission, NCTA had offered to provide a dual signal for three years in hopes of avoiding any mandate. But in a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, NCTA topper Kyle McSlarrow said his member companies could live with the three-year mandate and would therefore not challenge it in court.

Cable scored a bigger victory in managing to get the commission to scrap another part of the original dual-carriage proposal: a provision that would have required cablers to carry “all bits” of a broadcaster’s digital signal. Proposal, for which the National Assn. of Broadcasters lobbied, was intended to guard against cable degradation of a broadcaster’s signal.

But the NCTA was able to persuade the commission that carrying all bits would hinder cable’s ability to keep supplying bandwidth for broadband service. Instead, cablers will be required to provide broadcast HD signals in high definition so as to prevent favoring of cable HD fare.

The FCC did mandate another five years during which cablers must make their networks available to other pay TV competitors, like satcasters EchoStar and DirecTV. This requirement dates back to the 1992 Cable Act, and while the NCTA would have liked to see it expire, the org did not mount much of an effort to stop the FCC from renewing it.

“What we asked for, we largely got,” the NCTA’s McSlarrow said. The FCC decisions constitute “a good, fair result, a win-win for everybody and a model for the future.”

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