After months of public lobbying for less onerous digital-must-carry requirements, the American Cable Association filed with the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to formally exempt the smallest and most bandwidth-starved cable systems from carrying both analog and digital versions of broadcasters’ signals.
The ACA’s bone of contention is the FCC’s so-called dual-carriage requirement that will take effect Feb. 17, 2009, when broadcasters are required to turn off their analog signals. After that date, cable operators will have to carry the digital signals of local stations in whatever format they are broadcasting in, as well as provide standard-definition analog versions that can be viewed by older analog TV sets.
The dual-carriage requirement, which is slated to last until 2012, means that cable operators will either have to downconvert DTV signals at their headends before transmitting them to analog subscribers or install HD digital set-top boxes capable of downconverting the signals in subscribers’ homes.
Dual carriage isn’t seen as being overly burdensome for large cable operators, as many of them are already carrying three versions of broadcasters’ DTV signals as they gradually transition their plants to all-digital operation: an SD analog version for cable-ready analog sets; an SD digital version for customers with existing SD digital boxes; and an HD version for customers with HD set-tops or digital-cable-ready TV sets.
But the ACA -- which represents some 1,100 small and independent cable providers throughout the country -- has argued that the operational requirements of dual carriage would be financially crippling to its members and take away network capacity needed to provide broadband access and other advanced services.
The FCC has previously responded on the issue, saying that it would consider waiver requests for the most technologically challenged systems -- those with network bandwidth of 552 megahertz or lower. But in its filing Monday, the ACA asked for a blanket exemption of digital carriage for systems serving 5,000 or fewer subscribers or systems with less than 552 MHz of capacity.
"The FCC’s must-carry waiver process is costly and burdensome for small cable operators and needs to be replaced with outright exemptions," ACA president and CEO Matthew Polka said in a statement. "Clearly the FCC understands that there is a need for a must-carry exemption for small operators or it would not have created a waiver process in the first place. Unfortunately, it costs time and a lot of money to qualify for that waiver, both of which these operators do not have. It would save the commission time and significantly reduce the burden on these operators, sometimes serving as few as 100 subscribers, if the FCC cuts the red tape and adopts an exemption."