The Senate Wednesday passed STELA, the five-year re-authorization of the satellite blanket distant signal license.
It still has to be passed in the House, but the Senate action is a major step given the trouble the bill has had in gaining passage. The Dec. 31 expiration had to be extended twice after if failed to pass, and there was a brief period when the license had actually expired. The just-passed bill contains a provision making it retroactive to cover that base. Satellite operators and content owners complied with Congress' urgings to maintain the status quo between the license's expiration on Feb. 28 and the March 2 stopgap renewal until March 28.
The license allows satellite operators to import distant affiliated network TV station signals to viewers who can't receive a comparable local signal.
Among the changes to the new bill are allowing DISH back into the distant-signal business in exchange for delivering local signals to the couple dozen or so that had lacked them because they were too small to make it economical to serve them.
Unlike cable operators, satellite operators have the option not to carry local signals, but if they carry one, they must carry all.
The bill also resolves the so-called phantom signal issue for cable operators, who will no longer have to pay a fee based on viewers who aren't getting their programming.
Bill co-author Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) brought the phantom signal resolution home to his constituents. "subscribers in Burlington will still be able to receive programming such as Hockey Night in Canada, which has been a tradition, without fear that Comcast will have to remove the channel or raise prices because it is being charged royalties based on subscribers in Boston," he said.