FCC Releases Small Ops’ HD-Waiver Order

Small cable operators get three-year exemption from FCC rules requiring cable operators to carry TV stations' HD signals in HD after Feb. 17, 2009.

The Federal Communications Commission released its order granting small cable operators a three-year exemption from FCC rules requiring cable operators to carry TV stations' HD signals in HD after the Feb. 17, 2009, transition to digital.

In 2001, the FCC, to avoid "material degradation" of a broadcaster's signal on cable and the potential for competitive gamesmanship, ruled that a cable "operator may not provide a digital broadcast signal in a lesser format or lower resolution than that afforded to any digital programmer." This meant that if a cable operator carried a cable HD channel in HD, it could not downconvert a broadcaster's HD signal.

The FCC concluded that the HD-carriage requirement would be a hardship on smaller operators, which asked for the relief. The American Cable Association, which represents small and midsized operators, argued that the requirement could lead to price increases or even drive some systems out of business.

The FCC defines the small systems getting the waiver as those with 2,500 or fewer subscribers, so long as they are not affiliated with a "large cable operator," or those with channel capacity of 552 megahertz or less.

The FCC clarified that the viewability rule does not require cable operators, large or small, to carry a standard-definition digital signal as well as an analog signal to satisfy the "no material degradation" element because both the standard digital and analog signals have the same resolution.

But it also reiterated that both large and small systems would have to carry the SD signal as well as analog if there were digital subscribers who would otherwise not get a viewable signal.

The FCC declined to make must-carry broadcasters pay for the cost of downconverting their digital signals to analog for smaller cable operators’ analog customers.

“The ACA thanks chairman [Kevin] Martin for his efforts and leadership in adopting this reasonable exemption and granting much needed relief,” ACA president Matt Polka said in a statement Thursday. “This exemption is a reprieve to thousands of cable-system operators that had neither the extra bandwidth nor the budget to comply with the digital-must-carry obligation.”