Barton Bill Outlines Dual-Carriage Scenario


A House draft bill proposing to end analog television Dec. 31, 2008, would give cable operators some flexibility regarding carriage of digital-broadcast signals.

Under the 14-page bill, cable operators after the transition would be permitted, but not required, to convert digital signals to analog at the headend. But under one scenario, some TV stations would need to be carried in both analog and digital for at least five years.

The bill would mandate that if a cable operator converted a digital signal of a TV station that elected mandatory carriage, it must do the same for the other must-carry stations in the same market, according to industry and Capitol Hill sources.

An industry source said that provision would likely allow cable to downconvert stations that had elected retransmission consent without having to downconvert any must-carry stations.

The Federal Communications Commission would have authority to sunset the “convert one, convert all” policy related to must-carry stations after Dec. 31, 2013, based on the agency’s assessment of the penetration of digital-TV sets and converter boxes.

The House bill, called the Digital Television Transition Act of 2005, was prepared by staff of House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.). Copies of the bill began circulating late last week.

Although Barton favored ending the transition Dec. 31, 2006, he has apparently compromised by agreeing to tack on two years to the deadline.

"The most important thing about this draft is that it starts the clock ticking for broadcasters to free up spectrum for better uses," said Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, a member of the high-tech coalition supporting Barton’s effort to reclaim broadcast spectrum for partial reallocation to wireless-broadband providers.

The 2008 deadline tracks with a transition plan formulated under former FCC chairman Michael Powell. Powell’s staff favored requiring cable carriage of multiple local digital-TV signals after the transition; the Barton bill would not mandate multicast carriage, only a TV station’s “primary video.”

Upton’s panel is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on the draft bill.

A House source said the bill addressed direct-broadcast satellite providers by referencing statutory provisions in current law that state that DBS carriage requirements should be “comparable” to cable carriage rules.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz said Monday that the trade group was “still reviewing the language of the bill but anticipates providing comments at Thursday’s hearing.”

Dual-carriage requirements on cable would be triggered by choices made by cable operators. Cable could avoid dual carriage by transmitting just the digital-TV signals and supplying set-top boxes to millions of cable customers with only analog-reception equipment.

But dual carriage would likely occur by default because cable leaders have said that they don’t want to force set-tops on consumers that may not want them.

Some cable operators, including Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable, are moving forward with plans to provide all analog services -- whether TV stations or cable networks -- in digital as part of a simulcast strategy designed to offer consumers new on-demand services and to help the MSOs reclaim analog bandwidth.

That strategy would appear to fulfill terms of the House bill while letting consumers acquire digital-reception equipment at their own pace.

The cable industry lobbied Congress for authority to downconvert at the headend, promising that if given that power, local HDTV signals carried today would not be changed to analog after the transition.

According to the National Association of Broadcasters, the United States has 73 million analog-TV sets not connected to pay TV services, including 45 million in the 21 million homes that rely exclusively on free TV.

Barton and Upton said their bill would include set-top-box subsidies for poor families that do not subscribe to cable or satellite in order to ensure that they continue to have access to free broadcasting after the transition. The funding would come from revenue generated by the auction of analog-TV spectrum.

But the draft did not address the issue, apparently because the two Republicans could not reach agreement on the scope of the subsidy program with top Democrats on their committees, Reps. John Dingell (Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

Dingell and Markey said as much in a statement issued late Friday.

While endorsing a “date certain” for ending the transition, the two Democrats said they “continue to believe we should not take action to shut off millions of television sets without a workable remedy for consumers.”