Educating lawmakers

Despite a legislative lull, NCTA's Robert Sachs keeps cable issues alive

The cable industry has little to fear from Washington, going into this year's annual convention.

No Cable Act or Telecommunications Act or even Satellite Home Viewer Act-ripe with potential pitfalls for multichannel providers-is sitting on lawmakers' desks. In an election year, with a Republican Congress and a Democratic administration, chances are that policymakers will stay out of cable's business for the time being.

Even so, NCTA President Robert Sachs still sees a lot of work to do in educating lawmakers about the new direction of the cable industry and all the money, work and time it's taking to get there.

"We are spending a lot of time engaged with policymakers, even though there may not be an immediate issue," he says. "Our primary mission is policy advocacy."

The cable industry is spending billions to bring two-way broadband to most of the country. Cable passes some 97% of U.S. homes, which means that the cable industry could single-handedly ensure that no home misses the opportunity to have access to high-speed Internet services.

"We are upgrading virtually every mile of cable in this country," Sachs says. "It is labor-intensive, capital-intensive, and it takes some time. On a purely voluntary basis, as an industry, we are playing an important role in ensuring that high-speed Internet services are available to all homes, schools and libraries."

Still, the issue to which the cable industry is paying the most attention remains digital must-carry. Although, for now, it appears that cable won't face any new digital TV carriage requirement, Sachs is paying close attention. With all the multichannel competitors in the marketplace today-direct broadcast satellite and integrated providers such as RCN and StarPower- "is there a policy rationale for any form of must-carry?" he asks. "There is less rationale for government intervention when the field is occupied by a number of providers.

"It's remarkable that [NAB President] Eddie Fritts was so frank [at the NAB Convention] last month, when he said that the broadcast industry is seeking digital must-carry for datacasting and new services," Sachs continues.

"No one in Congress in 1992 [when must-carry became law as part of the 1992 Cable Act] was talking about broadcasters' datacasting ambitions. You don't usually say the government should subsidize your new businesses or force someone else to assure your success."

Several members of Congress have indicated that they are now thinking the same thing-and such thinking is crossing party lines, from California Republican Chris Cox to Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey. In a recent subcommittee vote on a separate issue, Cox included an amendment that would have required DBS operators to carry only broadcasters that provided 21 hours or more of locally produced programming a week. That amendment passed the subcommittee with a bipartisan vote, giving broadcasters a good scare.

The amendment was later heavily watered down by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, but the fact that the issue came up at all reveals that Congress may not be willing to keep a must-carry regime in place during broadcasters' transition to digital.

Meanwhile, the FCC is inclined to let the market solve the problem, as Fritts complained during the NAB convention: "The FCC is thwarting the transition to digital more than it is assisting it."

FCC Chairman William Kennard and staffers said at NAB that the commission is likely to open a proceeding on digital must-carry before this summer, but best guesses suggest that it will be nothing more than a look at how much capacity operators really have and whether it would be best used to carry broadcasters' second channels.

Meanwhile, the cable industry is talking to the consumer electronics manufacturers about such issues as how to label new digital televisions.

NCTA also has not completely let go of the open/forced-access issue, even though what started as many small firestorms across the country has mostly sputtered out.

All the major cable companies-AT & T, Time Warner, Comcast, Cox and Cablevision-have committed publicly to eventually allowing competing Internet service providers on their broadband networks. Sachs says 13 states have considered the issue and decided either to table it or to block it legislatively.

But, Sachs says, GTE and SBC still are pushing the issue in some areas, with GTE running broadcast ads. "As long as our competitors are still stirring this issue, we will continue to provide all the support necessary to member companies and regional cable associations."