AT&T To Press MSG Over Access To HD Feeds

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AT&T is again pressing its case for carriage of Madison Square Garden HD signals in Connecticut.

According to a copy of a letter being prepped by AT&T, the telco plans to provide notice to MSG and Cablevision on June 24 that unless the programmer starts negotiating for carriage of MSG and MSG Plus Networks' HD feeds by AT&T's U-Verse video service in Connecticut, it will amend its program-access complaint.

MSG's sports team coverage includes games of the Knicks, Rangers, Devils and Islanders, programming AT&T calls "unique and irreplaceable," including irreplaceable by standard-def feeds.

The letter and the potential amendment was prompted by the FCC's announcement this week that the Office of Management and Budget had approved the paperwork collection elements of its change to the terrestrial exemption. The exemption had previously essentially insulated terrestrial nets like MSG from access complaints. But the FCC made terrestrial nets subject to complaints in a ruling last January. That change also included making clear that HD versions of networks would be considered separately from standard-def versions, so that making an SD version available, as MSG has to U-Verse, was not sufficient access.

But while other parts of the FCC order went into effect in April, the portions on information collection related to the complaint process had not, pending paperwork-collection approval. The OMB approval provided the green light to anyone who wanted to file or update a complaint about access to a terrestrially delivered net.

AT&T has started its engines. According to the company, during carriage renewal negotiations with MSG on June 22, it informed the network of the OMB approval and of what it said was MSG's "legal duty to negotiate in good faith to grant AT&T access to the HD feeds as part of the current contract negotiations." AT&T said Cablevision's response was that it disagreed with AT&T's conclusion. Now, it is putting it in writing.

"[T]his is to notify MSG and Cablevision that, unless MSG agrees within the next ten days to negotiate in good faith a program license agreement for the HD format of MSG and MSG Plus programming, AT&T intends to submit a supplemental filing in the above-reference complaint proceeding informing the Commission that MSG continues to refuse to provide that programming in violation of section 628(b)"--that is the unfair and deceptive practices prohibition the FCC used to bring terrestrial nets into its program-access ambit.

In the wake of the January FCC decision to remove the exemption, Cablevision had said that it was still ready to defend itself, FCC change or no. "If the phone companies complain that they are unable to compete, we are confident that we can prove that it is for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with HD sports programming." Verizon also filed a complaint about access to the nets in Connecticut.

But not everyone was sticking to their guns. Last week, partly in anticipation of the OMB approval, Cox agreed to start making its terrestrially deliever Cox-4 net in San Diego and its Padres baseball games available to AT&T, DirecTV and Dish, settling a long-standing dispute over access to the regional sports net. Along with AT&T's and Verizon's access complaints against Cablevision in Connecticut, that was one of the complaints the FCC essentiall invited to be amended in light of the decision.