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WASHINGTON — The cable biz said Wednesday that it will begin carrying a handful of digital channels at no charge to broadcasters or cable nets, answering a call by Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell to stop all the squawking and make high-def a reality.

In adopting the voluntary Powell plan, the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. said the industry will take the following steps:

  • Beginning Jan. 1, the 10 largest cable operators — including AT&T, AOL Time Warner, Comcast, Charter and Cablevision — will offer to carry up to five commercial, public stations or cable nets that offer half their primetime lineup in high-def programming. Translated, cablers probably will carry only the major broadcast nets and cable nets, such as HBO and Showtime.

    The top 10 cable systems combined reach 85% of the national aud.

  • The signals provided by “qualifying” broadcast stations must be good quality.

  • Cable operators will immediately begin ordering and making available to customers set-top boxes capable of receiving a high-def signal.

“On April 4, you put forward a bold and creative proposal for voluntary industry actions to speed the digital TV transition,” NCTA prexy-CEO Robert Sachs said in Wednesday’s letter to Powell.

The communique came on the official deadline for the country’s 1,309 commercial TV stations to begin broadcasting a digital signal. It’s been clear for months that the deadline wouldn’t be met, due to a lack of consumer demand and the high cost of digital TV sets.

As of Wednesday, about 314 commercial stations were broadcasting in digital, according to the National Assn. of Broadcasters. Most of these stations are in major markets, including Los Angeles.

NCTA has long been at loggerheads with the National Assn. of Broadcasters over the carriage issue. TV stations say it will be impossible to make the switch without a promise by cablers to carry all digital signals at no charge. Cablers say this is an unfair requirement.

“We are pleased the cable industry is moving toward carriage of digital broadcast signals. We look forward to the day when cable operators carry all digital broadcast signals in their entirety,” NAB prexy-CEO Eddie Fritts said.

The NCTA’s announcement came on the eve of the cable industry’s annual confab. Show, to be held in New Orleans, runs Sunday through May 8.

Powell, who will speak at the cable convention, commended the NCTA for adopting his blueprint.

“I applaud the cable industry for its leadership in helping us to deliver on the promise of digital television for the American people,” Powell said.

The broadcast biz also has endorsed Powell’s plan, with the four major nets agreeing to air half their fall primetime lineup in high-def. HBO and Showtime have made a similar commitment.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long angry that broadcasters were handed $70 billion in free digital spectrum, said Congress will intervene should Powell’s voluntary plan and other mandates fail. He commended major nets such as CBS for offering an increasing amount of high-def programming, but said more needs to be done.

“I believe that broadcasters, as beneficiaries of this ‘Great American Spectrum Rip-Off,’ bear heightened responsibility for facilitating the DTV transition,” McCain said.

Should the transition remain stalled, McCain said he will push to reclaim analog spectrum beginning Jan. 1, 2007. This would force broadcasters to either broadcast digitally or go black.