Video services

Small Cable Lobby Asks for DTV Exemption

American Cable Association (ACA) has formally requested that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) exempt small cable systems from being saddled with delivering “must-carry” broadcast stations in analog and digital format following the February 2009 transition.

Last November, the FCC voted in favor of new rules requiring that systems provide dual carriage or migrate their systems to an all-digital environment, so long as all customers have access to the equipment necessary (i.e., digital set-tops) to receive those signals. (See FCC OKs Dual TV Carriage Rules.)

The rules, good through 2012, give smaller operators (those with activated capacity of 552 MHz) some relief. Those cablers can request a hardship waiver on the dual-carriage requirement on an ad hoc basis. But cable’s pressure groups believe the FCC has not done enough, arguing that smaller MSOs could find themselves in financial hot water just trying to comply with the rules.

The ACA is pushing for a blanket waiver, stressing that the “expense and uncertainty of the waiver process is problematic” for many of ACA’s membership. In addition to the costs of retaining an attorney, those operators would also be required for fork over a $1,250 filing fee to request a waiver under the current rules. The president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) made a similar request on behalf of small MSOs late last month, asking the FCC for “swift action” on the matter. (See McSlarrow Backs the Little Guys .)

Detailed in a 17-page filing made Sunday (March 2), the ACA instead wants the FCC to consider a blanket waiver for systems with less than 552 MHz of capacity or those that serve 5,000 or fewer cable subscribers.

The ACA, citing data from the National Cable Television Cooperative Inc. (NCTC) , estimates that the minimum cost of compliance with the DTV must-carry rules would be $28,600, a figure that includes the DTV receiver, an ATSC-to-ASI groomer, and additional station licenses, among other items. That rises to $54,900 in situations in which the cable system is currently delivering only analog video, as operators would be required to buy items such as the digital headend and a headend management station, and spring for the installation itself.

Figures for both scenarios do not include costs for digital set-top boxes and costs for maintenance, additional training, and backup equipment. The DCH6200, the least expensive CableCARD-compatible HD set-top box from Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), sells for $350 each, even with the NCTC discount.

The ACA also argued that it’s not workable for cable systems simply to pass broadcast signals in their original 8-VSB format instead of converting them to QAM. That’s partly because the tuner in a digital television defaults to QAM tuning, and that same tuner won’t recognize channels in the 8-VSB format. Even if the consumer were to set up the TV to tune to broadcast channels in 8-VSB, the tuner wouldn’t recognize any of the cable programming channels, the ACA added, citing owner’s manual excerpts for Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE)- and Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) digital televisions.

FCC officials were not immediately available for comment on the ACA filing.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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