Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin last fall got rules passed that effectively required nearly every U.S. cable system to carry TV stations in both analog and digital formats starting next February, in cases where stations relied on mandatory carriage rights to get distributed on local cable systems.
Last Tuesday, Martin softened that stance, after pressure from Capitol Hill and cable trade groups.
The result: A proposal that small cable systems would not have to retransmit the high-definition signals of must-carry TV stations. That proposal, as spelled out by Martin, would have the effect of relaxing that “dual carriage” mandate, which posed channel capacity concerns for small systems with bandwidth constraints.
“I’m pleased to hear that the FCC has listened to concerns that have been raised previously regarding the undue burden that small cable operators could face if they are required by the FCC to carry out both an analog and a digital signal,” Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said just hours after Martin announced his policy change at an impromptu appearance here, before the American Cable Association’s 15th Washington Summit.
For cable operators with 552 MHz or less of bandwidth in their systems, Martin said that he wanted the FCC to adopt new rules that would modify the dual-carriage mandate. The rules would take effect on Feb. 18, 2009 when broadcasters drop their analog signals and transmit only in digital.
Martin proposed that:
- Systems that are all-analog now and in the future may provide must-carry signals to their customers in just analog format.
- Systems with digital programming tiers may provide must-carry signals in analog if their digital set-tops tune in analog channels.
Dual carriage, Martin added, would still apply if digital boxes were incapable of tuning in analog signals. An example: Motorola’s DCT-700 box.
Martin said the legal basis for the change was an FCC policy adopted in 2001 that banned cable operators from unilaterally degrading high-definition must-carry signals to standard definition (SD) or analog. He proposed an exemption to the 2001 order that would allow 552 MHz systems to take the high-definition signals of must-carry local TV stations and convert them to analog.
“I am always sensitive to capacity constraints faced by small cable operators,” he told attendees at the ACA forum.
Last fall, the FCC reaffirmed the 2001 policy in the same order that codified the dual carriage mandate. The fall order exempted only a handful of cable systems that have started to deliver only digital signals.