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Martin: Give Small Ops a Break

A closer look at the published comments made Tuesday morning by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Kevin Martin at the American Cable Association (ACA) Summit in Washington, D.C., show that he's proposing more than just a hi-definition-related exception for cable systems with limited bandwidth. (See Martin Proposes HD Relief Plan.)

If they meet a set of criteria under Martin's plan, some systems may not have to pass on the digital and analog feeds of broadcast stations that opt for "must carry" status ahead of the February 2009 digital TV transition.

Under Martin's proposal:

  • Systems built out to 552 MHz or less (a typical "upgraded" cable system has capacity of at least 750 MHz) and that are analog-only, can down-convert a broadcaster's digital signal to analog, and send only the analog signal. In contrast, operators with plant greater than 552 MHz must go all-digital by February 2009 or conform with the FCC's new dual must-carry rules. (See FCC OKs Dual TV Carriage Rules.)

  • If a system with 552 MHz capacity or less offers both analog and digital video services to customers, and its digital subs are able to view an analog signal, the operator may down-convert the broadcaster's digital signal to analog.

  • If the system supports both analog and digital subs, and the digital subs are unable to view an analog signal, the operator can down-convert the broadcasters' digital signals to analog, and send those signals to analog customers while making the signal viewable to its digital subs.


"In sum, our viewability order will ensure that after February 17, 2009, all of your customers will continue to be able to view their broadcast signals without increasing your carriage burden," Martin said at the ACA Summit. "And with the exemption order I am circulating, those of you with small systems will be relieved of the 2001 burden of carrying broadcasters' HD signals."

Martin's leniency on the HD issue with small cable ops comes a couple weeks after the FCC published an order allowing DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) to phase-in carriage of local HD broadcast stations. (See DBS Catches a Break.)

His plan isn't the "blanket" provision the cable industry wanted. (See McSlarrow Backs the Little Guys and Small Cable Lobby Asks for DTV Exemption .) Even so, National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) CEO Kyle McSlarrow called Martin's proposal "a positive step forward."

According to Martin's plan, systems with 552 MHz or less will not need to file a waiver request. This automatic exemption should offer added relief for small MSOs, particularly those that don't have the wherewithal to "lawyer up" when dealing with the FCC's legal processes. The ACA argued last month that the "expense and uncertainty of the waiver process is problematic" for many of its members, noting that they would be burdened with a $1,250 filing fee for waiver requests plus associated attorney fees.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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