To the Editor:
In response to your article on Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)’s complaint about the impact of the Federal Communications Commission’s post-digital TV transition carriage rules on a 300-Megahertz system, I think it’s useful to inject some reality into the situation. Assuming, as is reasonable, that the system is in a smaller market, let’s assume that there are 5 full-power TV stations eligible for carriage. Making the further (and entirely unrealistic) assumption that all of them elect must-carry (to the extent they do not, the Supreme Court has held that carriage of those stations signals is not a “burden” on cable systems), then the following situations could occur after Feb. 17, 2009:
One, if the system has upgraded to digital, the total capacity needed to carry all local signals in analog and digital would be 45 MHz (five analog channels at 6 MHz each and five digital channels at no more than 3 MHz each). Even if the cable system is not carrying any of the local digital channels now, the net increase in capacity devoted to must carry would be 15 MHz, or 5% of system capacity, and the total capacity devoted to carriage of local television stations would be 15%. The Supreme Court, however, tells us that even having to use 33% of system capacity for local television is not an unreasonable burden on local cable systems. Alternatively,
Two, if the system has not upgraded to digital, and therefore does not offer Internet or telephone services, then the total capacity it would need after the transition would be 60 MHz (five 6-MHz analog channels and five 6-MHz channels used to carry the TV stations’ digital signals). The net impact of the FCC’s rules would be 30 MHz and the total capacity needed for all local carriage would be 60 MHz, or 20% of capacity, again well under the statutory one-third cap.
In fact, for almost all systems, the percentage of local stations electing must carry will be small, and National Cable & Telecommunications Association has told us that most cable systems are carrying at least some local TV stations’ digital signals. Therefore, the real incremental impact of the FCC’s rule is very likely to be minimal.
There may well be some very small cable systems that will have real trouble complying with the FCC’s rules, and the FCC has provided a mechanism for them to seek relief. But much like the claims that the adoption of must carry in 1992 would adversely affect cable programming, the claims that providing local signals to subscribers after the transition will “burden” systems do not reflect the real story.
Counsel in the communications and e-commerce department, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, Washington, D.C., and former senior vice president, general counsel, National Association of Broadcasters