Martin May Close Analog Loophole, Fine Providers For Lack Of DTV Education

FCC Chairman expected to hold press conference Wednesday to outline agenda for his second-to-last meeting

Word out of the FCC is that Chairman Kevin Martin will try to close the so-called analog loophole, create a digital translator service to help fill in analog coverage gaps, and has some fines teed up against multichannel video providers--cable and telco, and maybe satellite, for failure to provide sufficient DTV education information.

Martin is expected to hold a press conference Wednesday to outline the agenda for his second-to-last meeting, according to an FCC source who asked not to be identified. Expected to be on the docket is an item that would clarify/rule that--whether a channel is delivered via satellite to a head-end or via landline, as a number of regional sports networks are--both are subject to FCC nondiscriminatory access provisions.

Another source following the issue closely said they were hearing the loophole item might not make it to the agenda after all. FCC agendas are frequently moving targets. Given that the original program access rules were renewed at a meeting a year ago last September that started 11 hours late as commissioners worked to adjust items and statements, nothing is certain until the agenda is realeased, and even then it could be pulled before the meeting.

The terrestrial loophole stems from the wording of the FCC's program access rules, which require cable programmers to make their programming services available to satellite and cable operators alike. The rule requires that satellite-delivered services, as most cable channels are delivered to the head-end, be made available to the competition.

Some regional sports networks are delivered terrestrially, however, which those network owners have interpreted as excluding them from the requirement. Cox, for example, with its regional in San Diego. It is currently in a program access battle with AT&T over access to the San Diego Padres.

The FCC renewed its program access rules for five years back in September 2007, but left open the question of what to do about the loophole.

Also, as part of that September decision, the FCC sought comment on the effect of program bundling on the price and availability of channels. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has long pushed cable operators to unbundle their programming, arguing it will lead to lower cable bills and more parental control over programming.

Cable operators have countered that a governemnt-mandated unbundling regime would actually lead to higher prices and reduced diversity, although they concede the marketplace may move their model toward more choice.

A source said to look for the chairman to schedule a vote on a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on unbundling, perhaps giving cable networks more control over where their channels will be placed. An NPRM is not an order, but it is more than an inquiry, laying out what the FCC wants to do, but with more time for input and comment before they actually do it.

The chairmam may also propose an order that would strengthen the progam access complaint process. An independent cable networks group has pushed for changes like a shot clock on complaints and greater access to information from cable operators.

Chairman Martin is also expected to propose setting up a DTV translator service in areas of the country where viewers who had access to analog signals will lose them due to changes in DTV service coverage areas.
That would follow a decision last month to allow broadcasters to use distributed television systems (more and smaller towers with smaller coverage areas) to similarly fill in gaps as well as to improve the signals of viewers with problems of difficult terrain.

Martin had promised Congress that FCC engineers were looking to find technological fixes to the fact that DTV and analog coverage areas are not identical. That issue, along with others, came to the fore after the FCC-prompted early analog cut-off in Wilmington, NC, and drew criticism from some legislators in Washington.